A Series on Medicine and Human Rights 2: Why is access to healthcare a fundamental human right?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) constitution, written in 1946, recognises healthcare as a fundamental human right. It states that “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.”. Broadly speaking, this means that all people should have access to the services they need to maintain their health, without suffering financial hardship as a result. This means that no person should get ill, or die, on account of being poor, or because they are unable to access the healthcare they desperately need. 

HOW DO WE DEFINE THE RIGHT TO HEALTH? WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

The right to health can be defined in two ways:

  • The freedom to control your own body. 
  • The equal opportunity to seek healthcare and receive appropriate and timely treatment. This means that everyone within a given population should have equal chances of experiencing the highest quality of care. 

An understanding of healthcare as a fundamental human right is necessary for all states, but the current COVID pandemic has highlighted this need further. The role of the Government in ensuring this right is achieved is complex as policy must address the underlying issues which determine a person’s experience of healthcare. These could include giving access to safe and clean water, sanitation, enough healthy food, education and addressing gender inequality. In this way, the fundamental human right to healthcare is dependent on the fulfillment of many other human rights which also must be addressed by governments at the same time. 

WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF VIOLATING HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE CONTEXT OF HEALTH?

When governments fail to pay attention to and address violations of fundamental human rights, the results can be serious. In many countires, one way the right to health is violated is through discrimination. This can act as a strong barrier to accessing care, making poor quality of care more likely and reducing the number of people who feel able to access healthcare over time. 

In many countries, mental ill health is particularly associated with stigma. This can lead to people facing a loss of their dignity and sense of control over their lives, resulting in treatment being enforced on an individual. It is the responsibility of governments, amongst other organisations, to run public health campaigns which help to break down this stigma, and disprove the negative stereotypes associated with mental illness. 

It is undeniable that those often most adversely affected by poor health care are people of under-represented groups of society, including those with physical disabilities, indigenous populations, those living with HIV or sexually-transmitted diseases, people who work in the sex industry and those who identify as LGBTQ+. For many of these people, stigma associated with these groups can lead to forced treatment that takes place against their wishes. In more serious cases, unnecessary treatments can be inflicted which damage the patient over time. Additionally, those of specific racial and ethnic groups may be assigned to differing wards or treatment centres, making the standard of care received by each group very different. 
It is important to remember that we still have a long way to go if we wish to achieve global access to healthcare. The ability of people to receive timely, quality care is fundamental to an equal and sustainable future. It is important therefore that everyone, no matter who they are, where they live, or their financial situation, has access to this basic right.

EMILY WEST

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