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Right to Health Series

September 8, 2010

I have been asked to write a series on the right to health for the Doctors for Global Health newsletter, the DGH Reporter. This is the first installment and it had to be very short. The next will be out in October or November, and hopefully, longer.

Right to Health Series – Part I

The right to the highest attainable standard of health is more than a slogan or aspiration. It has been well defined by the work of scholars and activists and contains very specific standards. By applying these standards in our own work and organizations, and by using them to hold governments to account, we can make the right to health a reality.

Economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to health, are the same as the political and civil rights we understand better in the US. We understand that in order to make the right to a fair trial more than just a slogan, we, through our government and other institutions, must put into place a justice system that meets certain standards. That system must include, for example, the presumption of innocence, rules about police conduct, and access to a lawyer. These are also rights in themselves.

If we are all to be as healthy as possible, we must create a health system that meets standards that have been shown to promote health for all. Briefly, those are:

  • Governments must put into place to a system to prevent people from getting sick or injured and to treat them if they do. 
(We don’t have a health protection system in the US. We have a patchwork of agencies like the OSHA and FDA. Our public health system has been under funded for many years. Medical treatment is also funded and provided through a patchwork of clinicians and insurers.)
  • All health related facilities, goods and services must be available, accessible, acceptable, appropriate, and of good quality. This means that everything that is done to improve health, from medical care to water treatment, must be available to all. Access shouldn’t depend on things like being able to pay or to fit your wheelchair in the door.  Services must be acceptable to people of different cultures and who speak different languages. “Appropriate” means that services that are unnecessary or extravagant shouldn’t be given.
  • Governments must respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. 
(We all should ensure that our actions as neighbors, workers, and citizens are consistent with human rights, but it is ultimately the government’s duty to make progress towards their complete realization.)
  • The system must include ways to monitor compliance with human rights obligations, accountability mechanisms, and remedies when there are violations.
  • People affected by health related policies must participate in the creation and monitoring of those policies.
  • Every person has freedom to make decisions about his/her own health.
  • These rights apply to EVERYONE without discrimination.

More details about what the right to health contains and how people are using it around the world in the next installments of this series.

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