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politics, public health practice, public health ethics



  1. Gollust, Sarah E. BA
  2. Baum, Nancy M. MHS
  3. Jacobson, Peter D. JD, MPH


As public health practitioners are no doubt aware, public health practice and politics are closely linked. Although theoretical discussion of the emerging field of public health ethics has been rich, scholars have paid little attention to the relationship between ethical issues and politics in public health practice. We conducted semistructured interviews with 45 public health practitioners across a range of occupations (eg, health officers, medical directors, sanitarians, nurses, educators, and commissioners) working at 12 local health departments across Michigan and the state health department. Practitioners were asked to describe the ethical issues they faced in their daily practice. Ethical issues that resulted from the political environment emerged as one major category of ethical issues our interviewees described. This article illustrates how political issues engender ethical challenges in 4 main areas: public health agenda-setting, political pressures, political conflicts with best practices, and the scope of public health practice. The findings suggest that politics and public health ethics intrinsically intersect, because political pressures and priorities often impose ethical challenges that practitioners negotiate in their daily work.