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It's Time to Put Respect for Human Rights at the Heart of the NHS

Posted: 08/02/2013 10:19

The serious failures to uphold basic human rights at Stafford Hospital are well-documented and are back in the news with this week's publication of Sir Robert Francis QC's public inquiry report.

The Mid Staffordshire scandal revealed far too many stark and distressing incidents of indignity, lack of basic respect and physical harm - people left lying in soiled sheets, people suffering from dehydration and malnutrition, people being left undressed in view of other people and, worst of all, the hundreds of people thought to have died unnecessarily as a result of neglect. Just one example from the initial inquiry is enough to make us all shudder at the thought of what could have happened to anyone of us, or our families:

"The door was wide open. There were people walking past. Mum was in bed with the cot sides up and she hadn't got a stitch of clothing on. I mean, she would have been horrified. She was completely naked and if I said covered in faeces, she was. It was everywhere. It was in her hair, her eyes, her nails, her hands and on all the cot side, so she had obviously been trying to lift her herself up or move about, because the bed was covered and it was literally everywhere and it was dried. It would have been there a long time, it wasn't new."

The Francis Report raises many questions about the future of the NHS. We rightly want to know how we can prevent further shocking failures of care and we want people to be held to account if things do go wrong.

Our network of national charities represents the interests of millions of people from all walks of life, up and down the UK. As we debate the Francis recommendations, we believe that questions about how to organise, regulate and deliver our healthcare all flow from a fundamental question - how can we protect and uphold every single person's human rights, every single time they use the NHS?

Thankfully, the Human Rights Act means that hospitals, health authorities and NHS regulators already have a legal duty to act in ways that protect our human rights - including our rights to life, to privacy, to freedom from cruelty and degrading treatment and our right not to be discriminated against. This is an important safety net. For example, more than 100 people affected by the failures at Stafford Hospital have been able to use the Human Rights Act to seek justice for what happened to them.

But much more can and should be done to make respecting human rights part of the DNA of the NHS.

Human rights principles - dignity, respect, fairness, equality and autonomy - should be the minimum standards for NHS care that Francis recommends. They should be a lodestar for everyone involved in caring for and treating patients - from doctors, auxiliary staff and nurses, to psychologists and physiotherapists, to regulators and the people who commission NHS services, to senior managers and chief executives of health authorities, to the Health Secretary.

These are simple and straightforward values. In many ways, they are about simple common sense. Putting them at the heart of healthcare means everyone, at all levels of the system, asking "How would I want to be treated in this situation? How would I want my mum or my brother or my child to be treated?"

One example of this common sense, human rights-based approach is the Dignity for All project run by University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. According to the Commission on Dignity in Care for Older People (an initiative by Age UK, the Local Government Association and the NHS Confederation), this project brought about small changes that have made a big difference to how patients are treated, including a Behind Closed Doors campaign to make sure that people can choose to use the toilet in private wherever possible.

Other examples include Macmillan Cancer Support's work to develop a human rights framework for cancer care in England and the Dignity in Care campaign, which has already built a network of over 40,000 "dignity champions" - individuals and organisations working to make dignity a reality for people using care services.

So, while there is much to do, there is also much to build on. Like our long-standing commitment to human rights, the NHS is a precious British asset and a source of national pride. As we digest the Francis Report over the coming weeks and months, let's make sure our human rights take their rightful place at the heart of our future NHS.

 

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