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The meaning of health law: Dewhirst

Practising health law is more than just acquiring a set of legal skills, it means immersing yourself in a discipline that goes to the heart of people’s lives, says Toronto health lawyer Kate Dewhirst.

“Health law is really about the human condition,” Dewhirst tells

“It’s about our relationships with our bodies, our families and in the ways in which government can restrict our liberties.”

People sometimes mistakenly believe health-care lawyers are simply corporate counsel or litigators who work for health-sector clients, but the truth is far more interesting, she says: health law is complex, fascinating and abounding in ethical questions.

“Some of the most complicated tort law and litigation is found in health law,” says Dewhirst, principal of Kate Dewhirst Health Law. “It does hit at the heart of what it means to be human and to have individual rights and autonomy.” 

One of Dewhirst’s professors at Dalhousie University faculty of law, Jocelyn Downie, once said you could teach the entirety of law school through a health law lens. “I thought that was fascinating,” Dewhirst says.

After years of practice, Dewhirst has come to appreciate the great breadth of her field, which touches on criminal law, tax law, as well as administrative, commercial, environmental, construction and real estate law. 

Health-care organizations are some of Canada’s biggest employers and among its most regulated, governed by as many as 70 laws, she notes. 

Knowing the various legislation is important to a successful practice, but you need to do more, she adds. “To practise in this area requires that you immerse yourself in the culture of health care.” 

Dewhirst, who has a solicitor and advisory practice and is an active teacher, says some lawyers work exclusively as litigators, she says. Others specialize in professional regulation; many focus on tort law or commercial litigation involving health-care agencies.

Some have busy criminal practices, particularly in the area of mental health, while other lawyers focus on reproductive law or pharmaceutical issues. Some concentrate on elder law and many work as in-house counsel for hospitals, long-term care homes, laboratories or pharmaceutical companies, she says.

“Any training that you have can translate into usable skills in health law,” Dewhirst says.  

But if there is one attribute of a good health lawyer, it’s a willingness to “sit in complexity,” she says. “There can be complex ethical issues.”

Health organizations, whether public or private, deal with more than monetary or stakeholder issues; they deal with complicated questions, often with moral dimensions, Dewhirst says. “They have a profound impact on people’s lives.”

A home-care agency, for instance, can decide whether a person gets to live at home or in an institution, she says. Mental-health law, apart from criminal law, is one of the few areas under which people can be held against their will, she notes.

“It can be very hard,” Dewhirst says. “You see people at their most vulnerable.”

Some issues are matters of life and death, she adds. “Will someone make their own choice to end their life? Will a family member be entitled to make a decision to force someone to take their medications? Do people have privacy rights when they are at risk of harming themselves?”

Despite the demands, health law is a calling for many, Dewhirst says. “We are energized by it. Those of us who practise in this area find the ethical issues interesting and motivating.”

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about health law is that it is narrow and on the fringe, less hard-hitting than, say, criminal, family or corporate law, but the opposite is true, she says. “The issues are so important.” 

The word seems to be getting out because there are now hundreds of health-law lawyers in Ontario alone, she says. “I get calls all the time from students who are interested in practising health law.” 

Dewhirst knew from an early age that she wanted to do this kind of work, although she didn’t know it was called health law.

“I grew up listening to both legal and health issues,” she says.

“My mother was a nurse and taught nursing and my father was a police officer. So at the dinner table, we talked about complicated, sometimes gory situations. 

"I was always interested in both health and law, and I didn’t know how those could work together until I went to university and I heard there was something called health law. It was just perfect for me.”

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