What is the Human Right to Health and Health Care?

The human right to health means that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, which includes access to all medical services, sanitation, adequate food, decent housing, healthy working conditions, and a clean environment.

  • The human right to health guarantees a system of health protection for all.
  • Everyone has the right to the health care they need, and to living conditions that enable us to be healthy, such as adequate food, housing, and a healthy environment.
  • Health care must be provided as a public good for all, financed publicly and equitably.

The human right to health care means that hospitals, clinics, medicines, and doctors’ services must be accessible, available, acceptable, and of good quality for everyone, on an equitable basis, where and when needed. The design of a health care system must be guided by the following key human rights standards:

Universal Access: Access to health care must be universal, guaranteed for all on an equitable basis. Health care must be affordable and comprehensive for everyone, and physically accessible where and when needed.

Availability: Adequate health care infrastructure (e.g. hospitals, community health facilities, trained health care professionals), goods (e.g. drugs, equipment), and services (e.g. primary care, mental health) must be available in all geographical areas and to all communities.

Acceptability and Dignity: Health care institutions and providers must respect dignity, provide culturally appropriate care, be responsive to needs based on gender, age, culture, language, and different ways of life and abilities. They must respect medical ethics and protect confidentiality.

Quality: All health care must be medically appropriate and of good quality, guided by quality standards and control mechanisms, and provided in a timely, safe, and patient-centered manner.

The human right to health also entails the following procedural principles, which apply to all human rights:

Non-Discrimination: Health care must be accessible and provided without discrimination (in intent or effect) based on health status, race, ethnicity, age, sex, sexuality, disability, language, religion, national origin, income, or social status.

Transparency: Health information must be easily accessible for everyone, enabling people to protect their health and claim quality health services. Institutions that organize, finance or deliver health care must operate in a transparent way.

Participation: Individuals and communities must be able to take an active role in decisions that affect their health, including in the organization and implementation of health care services.

Accountability: Private companies and public agencies must be held accountable for protecting the right to health care through enforceable standards, regulations, and independent compliance monitoring.

Healthcare Is a Human Right campaigns now exist in several U.S. states, inspired by the example of Vermont, which in 2011 became the first state to pass a law for a universal, publicly financed health care system. All of these campaigns have translated the human rights standards listed above into clear human rights principles that guide their actions and policy positions:

  • Universality: Everyone must have access to equal high-quality and comprehensive health care.
  • Equity: Resources and services must be distributed and accessed according to people's needs. We get what we need and give what we can.
  • Accountability: The health care system must be accountable to the people it serves.
  • Transparency: The health care system must be open with regard to information, decision-making, and management.
  • Participation: The health care system must enable meaningful public participation in all decisions affecting people's right to health care.
 
The Human Right to Health is protected in:

United Nations committees ("treaty bodies"), comprised of independent experts, oversee the implementation of particular human rights treaties. These committees oversee the treaties by, among other things, receiving government and civil society reports on the implementation of the treaties, making comments to the government reports, and issuing general comments about the treaties or specific right contained therein. With regard to the human right to health, in the year 2000 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued legal guidance for implementation of this right:

  • General Comment 14 is now a key source for advocates seeking to apply human rights standards to their own national, state or local context.

Further Resources

To download our one page fact sheet, click here. We also have a two page fact sheet on the human right to health, as well as a two page fact sheet on health care. For a general fact sheet on human rights, click here.

To see all NESRI publications on the human right to health and health care click here.

For information on how NESRI is supporting the movement for the human right to health care in the United States, visit the initiatives on our Program page.

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