Not really a dirty word: human rights for a real world impact on our health

Dr Theo Gavrielides, Editor-in-Chief of International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare, believes that human rights can act as levers that can lift even the most powerful obstacles in the
pursuit of dignity and justice, and argues that research can inform, support and, ultimately, greatly improve the delivery of care services.

Do you agree?

Theo really highlights the need for research evidence to influence what happens in practice. What steps do you think could be taken to turn research into deliverable improvements that create real world impact?

“Human rights … oh, not again! Which celebrity had their picture taken without permission this time?”

Unfortunately, these are the indignant thoughts that run through many people’s minds when human rights when they are mentioned by the media. Tabloids and the powerful have managed to paint – and, indeed, instil - a picture of human rights fit only for celebrities, or as a hindrance in the war against terrorism. Human rights are portrayed as luxury entitlements used by those that want to avoid punishment or claim compensation for trivial reasons. They are associated with political correctness, or conceived in narrow legalistic terms and largely of interest to lawyers.

But human rights are a lot more than that. Human rights embody the very essence of democracy, and can act as levers that can lift even the most powerful obstacles in the pursuit of dignity and justice. They can empower the most marginalized individual to say “no” to a powerful state – and, yes, they can drive public service delivery.

“Human rights refer to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Put another way, human rights are minimum living standards that should be available to everyone simply because of their humanity.

The truth is that we have collectively failed both the letter and the spirt of human rights law as we drafted it after the shameful acts and crimes against humanity during two World Wars. Even in our affluent, Western societies - despite them being universal rights - access to health and social care services remains unequal.

So, what are we doing about it?

I have always believed that the best arguments for practice and policy reform are those that are founded in evidence. This is why I joined the International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare (IJHRH) as its Editor-in-Chief, and the reason I am calling on you to join us in celebrating 10 years of leading practice, policymaking and academia internationally. And my reason for inviting you to write for us, focusing on those gaps between real world implementation and research.

Someone once asked me: “When would you know that your human rights work has had its days?” At first, I considered the question to be a rhetorical one. But then I reflected on it further. It prompted me to think about the kind of change that we are trying to achieve through our work on human rights - let that be campaigning, running an organization, reading, writing, researching or indeed publishing. It also helped me to focus on what I want to achieve as the Editor of IJHRH.

Dr Gavrielides was recently joined by Norman Lamb MP and special issue co-editors Professor Deborah Christie (Department of Child and Adolescent Psychological Services, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) and Dr Lee Hudson (Consultant General Paediatrician, Great Ormond Street Hospital) at an event at the House of Commons marking the 10th anniversary of IJHRH

Bridging human rights research with real world impact

We often picture healthcare service providers as faceless institutions of power; and we academics tend to live in our high ivory towers, often preaching the converted. The truth is that when you are in hospital, you will be treated by an individual – not a machine! It is that individual and the mind-set of the system that controls those that we want to inform, support and, ultimately, change for the better through our research. That individual will also be ill and vulnerable at some point in their life, and will also have an older person in their family in need of help. That individual will also probably be from a minority or marginalized group. That individual might also be a woman facing gender-related issues, or a person of faith or no faith with cultural or other circumstances and needs.

So how is our research going to help change this culture of neglect and ignorance? By focusing on answering questions that matter the most such as: is there evidence to suggest that where human rights are mainstreamed:
  • the satisfaction of healthcare users is increased?
  • healthcare user outcomes are improved (e.g. wellbeing; improved health; quicker recovery)?
  •  healthcare service staff become more satisfied with their job (e.g. less stress; lower turnover; sickness absence; reminded why they chose the given profession in the first place)?
  • decision-making becomes easier and of better quality?

These are mere examples of research questions that, when answered, can shed light to practice gaps, and gradually change peoples’ lives. With you, the reader and our author, I want to help embed human rights in the structures, mind-sets and hearts of healthcare providers. Put another way, I want to institutionalize human rights thinking in health and social care provision.

Despite the world becoming more divisive than ever and the political rhetoric of powerful leaders wanting to dismiss international human rights conventions and commitments, I believe that this is an achievable ambition. Researching, talking to people and indeed working with authors as part of my role at IJHRH helped me with this hope.

This is evidenced through the case studies that we have published. However, for a much wider implementation beyond a few selected case studies, this hope will materialize when it could genuinely be said that healthcare services are provided in a way that is fair, respect peoples’ dignity and diversity, and guarantee their rights to equal treatment and equality of opportunity. The effect would be to reduce the likelihood of human rights breaches and to improve the quality of the services provided for all users.

Find out more about Dr Gavrielides  and his work at, and follow him on Twitter at @TGavrielides

Dr Gavrielides really highlights the need for research evidence to influence what happens in practice. What steps do you think could be taken to turn research into deliverable improvements that create real world impact?

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