Law is an essential discipline within the field of public health, and one that School of Public Health alum Barbara Buell (SPH’94) embraces each day as a partner at the law firm Smith Duggan Buell & Rufo, LLP.
As an attorney and trial lawyer with five decades of legal experience, Buell represents healthcare professionals and hospitals in medical malpractice and regulatory matters. She has been a pioneer in prosecuting the rights of women, and has tried several hundred civil cases since earning her JD from Northeastern University in 1971. Buell has also represented more than 18 charter schools in Massachusetts.
Initially planning to pursue a medical degree, Buell decided to attend law school at Northeastern “by virtue of a fortuitous invitation to apply on a Friday, when the new Law School was due to open on the following Monday.” After working in legal services as a law student and then passing the bar, “I knew I had found my calling,” she says.
Buell entered the male-dominated field at a time when there was an upheaval in the medical malpractice field, leading the state to step in as the insurer for physicians and hospitals. Buell and her law partner began representing clients in the healthcare field, and her interest in health law is what led her to receive her MPH at SPH in 1994. She has remained involved with the school, and currently serves on the Alumni Leadership Council.
“I love learning how the human body works, how healthcare is delivered to the population, how hospitals function, and the role of medical science in helping to ease the lives of my fellow beings,” she says.
Law, she says, is “a construct created by human beings to make life better. Although law is always looking backwards to precedent, creative individuals imagine the advances that could be accomplished with good policies.” For example, Buell says, the recently passed Massachusetts statute (Senate 2984) provides for increased access to healthcare by expending the scope of practice of people who are already trained to provide certain services. “Nurse anesthetists and psychiatric nurse mental health clinical specialists can now practice independently,” she says.
As SPH prepares for a post-COVID fall semester and its 45th anniversary celebration on November 18, Buell is looking forward to the school’s continued research and programming on important public health issues, from COVID-19 to racial equity.
“Public health is a form of social justice—it is the glue that holds society together,” she said in a video marking the upcoming anniversary. “Now is when public health should become a cabinet-level department. Now is when we must employ the skills of the public health practitioner.”