Human Rights - helping to deliver compassionate care

Sanchita Hosali

12 / 12 / 2014 10.30am

I’m often asked what a typical day at the British Institute of Human Rights look like, usually asked by people who imagine courtrooms and controversy. The reality is that we spend far more time on wards, with doctors and nurses, patients and advocates, than we ever do with lawyers. And that’s because for us human rights are not about law books, they are the living, breathing standards that set the benchmark for policy and practice in our public services.

Events at Mid-Stafford hospital, Winterbourne View and elsewhere are sad reminders of what happens when we lose sight of the human being, of the rights they have, and the responsibility of services to respect and protect these rights. A story that sticks is of a family whose mother was admitted to hospital following a fall, and three months later she died, having suffered dehydration and malnutrition, lack of pain medication and so riddled with infection she was denied the dignity of a proper burial. This is of course an extreme case, yet this and many others shine a spotlight on what happens when we lose sight of people’s rights to not be treated in an inhuman or degrading way. When we lose sight of people’s rights to respect for physical and mental well-being and we fail to treat people with dignity.

Human rights can help us avoid similar tragedies by providing a set of minimum standards that service users can expect, and staff can rely on. Universal minimum standards expressed in laws such as our Human Rights Act guide NHS organisations in developing policy and delivering services.

At BIHR our work shows that human rights, when properly understood, can help deliver the dignified and accountable services at the heart of the compassionate care agenda. Human rights can be as empowering for staff as they are for service users, helping to provide a legal framework on which to base decisions, and for challenging bad practice where it occurs. Crucially, human rights empower staff to deliver the compassionate care that they envisioned when they came into the job.  

The Difference it Makes charts our work with staff, patients and advocates to drive up quality of care through human rights. It features frontline support workers being empowered to ensure patients participate in treatment decisions and ward sisters tackling issues of hydration and nutrition through a human rights lens.

Although the idea of human rights as a means of achieving compassionate care – good experiences as well as good outcomes – has not yet fully taken root, the foundations are there and there is some exciting work happening. BIHR has just embarked on an exciting three year project supported by the Department of Health - Compassionate Care, Connecting Human Rights to the Frontline - working with mental health services to invest in frontline workers to develop more rights respecting services. We are also leading partner projects to produce resources for health practitioners, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, including an innovative new human rights training tool being developed with NHS Employers.

There have been too many recent reminders of the tragic human cost of losing sight of our humanity when delivering healthcare. The challenge now is to eliminate poor practice and to deliver compassionate care across the board. This is what putting human rights into practice is all about; a framework for action and one which places our human dignity right at the centre of services.

Sanchita Hosali is deputy director, British Institute of Human Rights

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