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Public Health Law


The surveilliance and collection of public health data and information is essential to the overall goals and aims of public health, in general. Information obtained through various methods is used to determine the magnitude of a problem, or whether one exists at all, who is primarily affected, who is at risk, and how to best develop policy and interventions to deal with the problem. This information is then further used to determine whether these particular given interventions are effective, themselves. The value of public health surveillance can be measured in terms of the timely dissemination of data and information about health events to those responsible for their control and prevention. The more complete a picture that public health experts can draw, the better they can understand and anticipate the many nuances that go into planning and preparation.

Much of the public health information that is collected is anonymized so as to protect people, but the collection and analysis of otherwise private health information is still a very contentious issue. There is a natural dichotomy inherent in the idea of surveilling and collecting the information of the private citizen for the purposes of the public's health, and this has been a source of consternation for public health officials and academics, and a source of apprehension for the general public. Recognizing this, Federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) have a public health exception written in to their language to allow for the disclosure of otherwise private information for specific public health purposes.

There are, still, however, many public health databases that are open and accessible to the general public. These include birth records, disease surveillance systems, death records, and Medicaid, to name a few. Ultimately, the collection and dissemination of specific public health information is one of the strongest tools that experts and researchers have to combat public health issues.

Online Resources


EpiAnalysis Blog

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Texts & Other Books


Health Surveillance: The Basics - VermontHealth

Legal Framework



  • Heghmann v. Sebelius, 2010 WL 2643301
    • Patients failed to allege an injury in fact to give rise to standing for their challenge to the constitutionally of the HITECH Act. The patients alleged that their privacy rights would be violated by the HITECH Act's electronic records requirement, but the HITECH Act expressly stated that its standards were voluntary for private entities and the patients did not allege that they used any federally provided health care or insurance
  • Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).
    • “Virtually every governmental action interferes with personal privacy to some degree. The question in each case is whether that interference violates a command of the United States Constitution.”
  • Whalen vs. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977)
    • Compelled reporting of all patients, prescribers, and dispensers of Schedule II prescription medications
  • Ferguson v City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001)
    • Patient's diagnostic tests shared with police without consent constituted "unreasonable search."



State Surveys

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