Human Rights in Patient Care: A Theoretical and Practical Framework
The concept of “human rights in patient care” refers to the application of human rights principles to the context of patient care. It provides a principled alternative to the growing discourse of “patients’ rights” that has evolved in response to widespread and severe human rights violations in health settings. Unlike “patients’ rights,” which is rooted in a consumer framework, this concept derives from inherent human dignity and neutrally applies universal, legally recognized human rights principles, protecting both patients and providers and admitting of limitations that can be justified by human rights norms. It recognizes the interrelation between patient and provider rights, particularly in contexts where providers face simultaneous obligations to patients and the state (“dual loyalty”) and may be pressured to abet human rights violations.
The human rights lens provides a means to examine systemic issues and state responsibility. Human rights principles that apply to patient care include both the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which covers both positive and negative guarantees in respect of health, as well as civil and political rights ranging from the patient’s right to be free from torture and inhumane treatment to liberty and security of person. They also focus attention on the right of socially excluded groups to be free from discrimination in the delivery of health care. Critical rights relevant to providers include freedom of association and the enjoyment of decent work conditions. Some, but not all, of these human rights correspond to rights that have been articulated in “patients’ rights” charters.
Complementary to—but distinct from—bioethics, human rights in patient care carry legal force and can be applied through judicial action. They also provide a powerful language to articulate and mobilize around justice concerns, and to engage in advocacy through the media and political negotiation. As “patients’ rights” movements and charters grow in popularity, it is important to link patient rights back to human rights standards and processes that are grounded in international law and consensus.
Jonathan Cohen, Human Rights in Patient Care: A Theoretical and Practical Framework, 15 Health and Human Rights Journal (2013).