School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Ethics & Law in Public Health (PHCM9331)

PHCM9331 Ethics & Law in Public Health


The aim of this course is to develop students’ knowledge and skills in identifying ethical and legal issues in health care policy development by reference to some recurring tensions: balancing individual rights with the goal of achieving healthy populations; the challenges of health care rationing; and addressing the needs of particular population groups. We will bring these issues to life through a series of case studies, including tobacco control policy, the “obesity epidemic”, pandemic influenza, vulnerability and disaster management, vaccination policy and research ethics. These case studies form the basis of online and class discussions, and provide a practical anchor for developing students' understanding of the relevant ethical and legal dilemmas arising from public health policy and health management. The course includes an introduction to some key theoretical frameworks and concepts for public health ethics and explores ways of applying these to a variety of cases and contexts. An introductory briefing on health law is provided, as well as key legal concepts that are central to working in the domain of healthcare, and the Public Health Act. Students are given opportunities to apply their learning to aspects of healthcare, public health and health management that they are particularly interested in or that are relevant to their professional development.

The course is offered in both external mode (fully online) and internal mode* (on campus tutorial classes and online resources). Perhaps more than any other discipline, discussion and collaboration are key to ethical decision making, reason for which active participation to online forums/class tutorials is a compulsory requirement for the successful completion of this course.

Ethics & Law in Public Health satisfies the compulsory requirement for an ethics and law component in tertiary studies for accreditation by the Royal Australasian College of Healthcare Administrators.

*The internal mode is offered subject to enrolment numbers.

Credit points

This course is an elective in the Master of Public Health, Master of Health Management and Master of Infectious Diseases Intelligence programs, comprising 6 units of credit.  It also fulfils the compulsory health law and ethics requirements for accreditation by the Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators.

Mode of study

External (Distance) and Internal (Face-to-Face)* † classes on campus.

*Please note: the internal mode is subject to enrolment numbers. Students may be required to join the External (online) mode if a minimum quota of on-campus numbers is not met.

†Aside from tutorials, all other resources for the Internal mode are found in Moodle.

Course aim

The overall aim of this course is to provide an overview of key ethical issues in relation to public health, health policy and health care management, the legal environment in which these institutional mandates operate, and emerging ethical frameworks for public health policy and health management.

Course Outcomes

On successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of ethical theories, principles and concepts relevant to public health and/or health management
  • Identify ethical issues and tensions in the field of public health, public health policy and/or health management
  • Apply critical analytical skills for examining the ethical challenges in developing public health and/or health management policy
  • Identify and apply ethical frameworks applicable to a variety of substantive areas in public health
  • Demonstrate understanding of the sources of Australian law governing the areas of public health and health management
  • Demonstrate understanding of the basic principles and sources of rights in health care, including the legal right to autonomy and to protection from foreseeable harm.
  • Understand the sources of statutory public health law in Australia and the powers, and limits on powers, contained in those laws.
  • Discuss the links between ethics and the law
  • Demonstrate ability to plan, research, and write a report drawing on a variety of institutional and academic sources
  • Demonstrate ability to conduct & participate in a discussion group through an informed dialogue with peers
Learning and teaching rationale

 While the course is introductory, it has been designed so that you can engage with a broad range of complex ethical and legal issues in public health and health management. To hone in on your own skills in the field, you will also have the opportunity to engage in depth with topics of interest and relevance to your own professional settings.

Ethical decision making involves discussion and gathering information and perspectives from several sources, and discussing, debating and reflecting on your own views and those of others. Group discussions held weekly with peers will demonstrate the complexity of ethical decision making and the importance of nuancing policy to take into account a diversity of values and perspectives.

Teaching strategies

The course is offered primarily in external mode. It may be offered in internal mode, subject to enrolment numbers. Students can only enrol in one or the other. Both internal and external participants will use the same online resources accessed through Moodle. The exception is the tutorial classes that will be held on campus for the internal mode, instead of online forums.


Assessment Task 1 - Short online quiz on health law (Internal and external modes)
Weighting: 20%

Assessment Task 2 - Online Participation + submit log of entries (External students only)
Assessment Task 2 - Weekly tutorial participation + lead 1 class discussion (Internal students only)

Weighting: 35%

Assessment Task 3 - Research Report (Internal and external modes)
Weighting: 45%
Length: 3000 words

Readings and resources
Learning resources for this course consist of the following:
  • All course notes and introductions to topics (posted in Moodle)
  • Any lecture slides (posted in Moodle)
  • All weekly required readings (links and references provided in Moodle)
  • All audio lecture recordings are online (available in Moodle)
  • Additional readings as necessary to pursue research and prepare assignments
  • Supplementary resources such as film, podcasts (available in Moodle)
Recommended resources
There is no set text book for this course.  We have compiled a list of texts under each topic, and provided links to the mandatory readings which you will find included in the modules.