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 consider ethics and law in public health and in the management of health care institutions. The course includes an introduction to ethics and explores the ethical challenges of balancing the interests of individuals and society within a healthcare context. Differences between the strong community focus of public health ethics and the more individual focus of clinical ethics are also studied. An introductory briefing on health law is provided together with discussions on common issues of concern relating to public health and health management law. Students are given opportunities to apply their learning to particular issues of interest in public health and health care management.

The course is offered in both external and on campus modes, and students must follow the tutorial attendance requirements set out for their chosen course. The external mode: involves weekly online activities and students’ direct involvement in leading and moderating online discussions. Participation in online tutorials is compulsory. The on-campus mode (N.B. Offered subject to enrolment numbers): involves a 2-hour weekly compulsory tutorial class held at the Kensington campus over eleven weeks, with active participation to class discussion.

The course aims to deliver 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, involuntary treatment for mental illness, vaccination policy and cancer screening. 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 issues.

Perhaps more than any other discipline, discussion and collaboration is the key to ethical decision making. Communication with stakeholder groups and drawing on expertise across a range of disciplines including economics, law, sociology, the various health care professions, research fields including epidemiology, infection control and so on, are central to creating policy and designing appropriate and effective laws. The tutorial class and online discussions are central to this course as students will learn from each other, drawing on the diverse experiences and interests in the student group, as well as from the course materials.

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.

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.

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:


  • Be knowledgeable about what constitute ethical issues in the field of public health and health management
  • Identify and understand the different ethical frameworks applicable to public health
  • Understand the sources of Australian law and some of the statutory requirements governing the areas of public health and health management
  • Be aware of the links between ethics and the law
  • Identify what considerations are morally and legally relevant in the field
  • Be aware of Australian legal requirements relating to rights and responsibilities of patients, professionals and institutions
  • Understand the legal concepts of consent, competence, and substitute decision-making


  • Demonstrate critical analytical skills for examining ethical and legal implications of policies and practices in public health and health management
  • Identify legal requirements applicable to health care policy, management and intervention
  • Effectively engage in informed oral and written discussion on ethical issues arising in the context of public health and health care management
  • Plan, research, and write reports drawing on a variety of institutional and academic resources
  • Demonstrate they can lead 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 - Essay: Critical Policy Analysis
Weighting: 25%
Length: 1500 words

Assessment Task 2 - Online Participation
Weighting: 30%

Assessment Task 3 - Research Report
Weighting: 45%
Length: 2500 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 where relevant (posted in Moodle)
  • All weekly required readings
  • Lecture recordings from the Residential Workshop (available in Moodle)
  • Additional readings as necessary to pursue research and prepare assignments
  • Supplementary resources such as videos, 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.