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Health care and human rights

A guide for RCN members on putting human rights at the heart of health care design and delivery.

Health care and the three main types of rights

Putting human rights at the heart of health care design and delivery and reflecting the core values of fairness, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy can improve services and patient care. Key benefits of the human rights-based approach are improved experiences and outcomes for patients, service users and staff by approaching services and decisions in a person-centred way.

There are three main types of rights.

  1. Absolute rights cannot be limited or interfered with in any way, by NHS organisations or by any other public authorities.
  2. Limited rights can be limited only in specific and finite circumstances. These circumstances are set out in full in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
  3. Qualified rights can be limited in a wider range of circumstances than limited rights and are the majority of the rights in the ECHR. This is because the protection of qualified rights can affect the rights of others.
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Health care professionals

The Human Rights Act places an obligation on all individuals who work in public authorities or carry out public functions to respect human rights. This will specifically relate to, but is not limited to, patients or clients in their care.

Whilst individuals are not personally bound by the obligations under the Act, public authorities are, and by extension anyone performing a public function must have regard to Convention rights. The NHS is a public body for the purposes of the Act, as are the Prison Service and the Border Agency.

It means that it is unlawful for health care services to act in a way that is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. In their day-to-day work, health care professionals need to be thinking about:

  1. Do my actions impact on anyone’s human rights?
  2. If so, which rights and who do they belong to?
  3. How should my practice, decision or response reflect this?
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Health care services and public authorities

The Human Rights Act has a direct impact on health services and will mean particular consideration needs to be given to:

  • users of the health service
  • regulators of the health service
  • employees of the health service
  • the health service as an employer.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a number of online resources, including case studies, to help public sector bodies in England and Wales and organisations meet their obligation and duties. It also provides specific guidance about Human Rights in Health and Social Care.

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Further information

The full Human Rights Act can be viewed on the government's Legislation website

Equality and Human Rights Commission (for England, Scotland and Wales)

Equality Commission Northern Ireland

See also:


The NMC Code

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