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Is it right to talk about patient safety rights?

23 May 2024
Volume 33 · Issue 10


John Tingle, Lecturer in Law, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham and Angela Eggleton, Teaching Fellow, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, discuss some reports on patient rights

It has always been fashionable to talk about rights in health care. The word ‘right’ has impact, it is a forceful word and in everyday language bears a simple, understandable meaning. When we use the word, we are asking for an entitlement to something and an obligation, a duty on others to provide it. In the context of the NHS, the implication is that the Government, through the NHS, has a duty to provide me with this or that treatment resource – that I have a right to it, and the NHS an obligation to provide it.

However, when we look at all this in the context of the NHS and its obligations to provide free health care based on need, the size and complexity of its mission, the prism of rights and duties does seem to lose relevance. The NHS cannot treat everyone and we cannot demand everything from it. There are absolute, qualified, and conditional rights and duties. Matters are much more complicated and nuanced. Nurses, doctors, and the NHS as a whole inevitably have to make tough decisions, which some would argue impinge on their rights. Budgets have to be balanced in terms of staffing and treatments; priorities are set and rationalised. In a sense it's all a question of balance.

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