Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Reviews

Human rights: more than avoiding torture

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 01 June 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:0306216
  1. César Augusto Ugarte Gil, sixth year medical student1
  1. 1Cayetano Heredia University, Lima, Peru

Despite medical students often having good relationships with their patients, we sometimes forget about a patients humanity. Consciously or unconsciously, we talk about patients as “complicated cases,” “textbook cases,” or “journal cases.” If we were a patient, would we like being talked about like that?

We form these attitudes at home, at university, in clinics, in our social lives—in all aspects of our world. How can we avoid these types of attitude? Something that is often forgotten in our medical education is teaching human rights.

We tend to think of human rights as liberty of expression and struggle against torture. But we forget that one fundamental human right is the right to health; as health professionals we must collaborate to preserve it, as agreed more than 50 years ago.1

Three important points need thought.2 Firstly, do the politics of health have a negative or positive effect on human rights? Secondly, violations of other human rights can affect health. And thirdly, promotion and protection of health and human rights are closely linked.

Consciously or unconsciously, we talk about patients as “complicated cases,” “textbook cases,” or “journal cases

“Everyone has the right to have a standard way of living appropriate for the health and well being of themselves and of their family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and other necessary social services, and the right to security in the case of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, elderly and other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his or her control.”3

Patients rights include:

  • Exercising these rights without regard to gender, cultural, economic, educational, or religious background, or the source of payment for care, and with respect and sensitivity for the psychosocial, spiritual, and cultural values that impact on the patients response to qcare

  • Receiving considerate and respectful care

  • Knowing the name of the physician who has primary responsibility for them and all others involved in their care

  • Being told about their illness in terms they can understand

  • Having information about any proposed treatment or procedure in order to give informed consent or to refuse

  • Participating actively in decisions regarding their care, including the right to refuse treatment

  • Confidentiality and privacy

  • Getting reasonable responses to any reasonable requests made for service

  • Being able to leave the hospital even against the advice of doctors

  • Having reasonable continuity of care

  • The right to refuse to take part in research

  • Examining and receiving an explanation of the bill regardless of source of payment

  • Knowing which hospital rules and policies apply to the patients conduct

  • That these rights apply to those who make decisions on behalf of the patient—a parent, guardian or other representative recognised by law.

Just as medical knowledge is about a whole person, human rights should be inherent in all courses

Several of these rights are elementary and refer to the basic dignity of the patient. But these are commonly not respected, showing how important it is to teach medical students about human rights. But how do we achieve this?

Teaching human rights with ethics courses at university is not enough. Just as medical knowledge is about a whole person, human rights should be inherent in all courses. This does not mean that human rights should be taught with cardiology lectures. It means that when we practise, we are respectful upholders of human rights, and that in professional practice this becomes habit. Students learn more in their practice with patients, and in that practice they gain most knowledge.

Medical schools should understand the importance of teaching human rights to medical students and ensure that staff are trained to integrate the ideas with their teaching.


Originally published as: Student BMJ 2003;11:216


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