Interview David Townend

Technological developments in medicine, life sciences and healthcare raise questions about governance and regulation.

“These developments present us with tremendous possible opportunities, but there are also possible risks for both individuals and society as a whole. Our research attempts to formulate and answer the governance and regulation questions raised by new developments,” says David Townend, Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy in Health, Medicine and Life Sciences.

On 23 September, Professor Townend delivered his inaugural address entitled ‘We are all individuals: The future for health law’. Townend studied law and describes himself as an ‘academic lawyer’. He worked for many years at the University of Sheffield (UK) before moving to Maastricht in 2008. “I was already working on various projects with researchers from CAPHRI, and the opportunity to move to UM was very exciting,” he says.

The title of his endowed chair position reflects his willingness to collaborate across disciplines. “The Department of Health, Ethics and Society (HES), with its disciplinary mix of sociology, philosophy, ethics, history and anthropology is a great place to situate the discussion of the resonance and relevance of Law in society,” says Townend.

“I wonder how people will look back on our generation fifty or a hundred years from now. What will they think of our response to current developments? This can’t be answered in academic isolation; we have to find new governance and regulatory solutions in discussion across the disciplines in CAPHRI and FHML.”

One topical issue that Townend and his colleagues are currently researching is the governance of medical genomic data - of ‘big data' in medical research. Linking and deep mining medical data offers tremendous opportunities for advances in healthcare. Linking data brings us one step closer to personalised medicine, but also raises questions about the implications for our privacy, our healthcare systems and our personal and collective responsibilities.

“We have lived in a welfare society and our healthcare and insurance systems are based on solidarity. Now we are asked to move to a ‘participation society’. This poses interesting social, and, consequently, governance and regulation questions: how do we respond to personalised medicine in the participation society? Do we move to a more individual-risk-based society, or do we retain values of shared responsibility and solidarity? Does that shared responsibility include individual responsibility to respond to medical prompts when making lifestyle choices? If I want others to support me, do I have a duty to support myself as best as I can? What happens if I choose not to do so? What is the role of Law in protecting individuals in this new world?”

This is just one area that Townend and the health law group in CAPHRI (David Shaw and Lisette Bongers) are considering at the present time. Alongside traditional health law issues (for example, new patient rights), they are also asking questions about the proper regulation of health, medicine and life science research.

“We are researching the procedural and substantive aspects of research ethics and research ethics committee regulation; seeking to find the balance in the law of enabling science that has the trust and confidence of its communities. This isn't just an academic exercise. Along with other HES colleagues and alongside our own original research, we contribute Ethical, Legal and Societal Implications considerations and work packages to many projects both in CAPHRI and in FHML; and we are involved in ‘niet WMO plichtig’ research ethics approval in FHML and the University.”

All this fits within Townend's broad understanding of what it is to be an academic lawyer.

“Our job is to look at the consistency and effectiveness of the Law. We have to ask if the Law is internally consistent between and within Laws; and externally consistent with other norms and the expectations of society. That is what makes this such a political and exciting enterprise.”

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