Discrimination in health care

What is discrimination in health care?

Discrimination in hospitals and other health facilities is widespread across the world and takes many forms. It violates the most fundamental human rights protected in international treaties and in national laws and constitutions.

The most marginalized and stigmatized people are most often victimized. They may face discrimination on the basis of a variety of reasons including age, sex, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. Discrimination affects both users of health care services and health workers. It is often manifested when people are denied access to services that are otherwise available to others. It can also occur through denial of services that are only needed by certain groups, such as women.

Examples include:

  • being subjected to physical and verbal abuse or violence
  • involuntary treatment
  • breaches of confidentiality
  • denial of autonomous decision-making
  • lack of free and informed consent.

What are the obligations of States?

States have an immediate legal obligation to address discrimination. However, a coordinated effort from the United Nations system is also urgently required. Stakeholders should put in place guarantees against discrimination in law, policies, and regulations, by:

  • reviewing and strengthening laws to prohibit discrimination in the health sector, including in the form of mandatory HIV testing and involuntary treatment
  • reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence, including laws that criminalize gender expression, same sex conduct, adultery and other sexual behaviours between consenting adults; adult consensual sex work; drug use; and sexual and reproductive health care services and information
  • reviewing, strengthening, implementing and monitoring health professional policies, regulations, standards, working conditions and ethics, for the prohibition of discrimination on all grounds in connection to health care settings.

What is the role of health workers?

With regards to the role of health workers in the elimination of discrimination first, the labour rights and standards of health workers should be fully respected, protected, and fulfilled, and that health workers should be free from discrimination and violence in the workplace.

Other supporting measures that need to be taken include the provision of pre-service and in-service education to health workers on their rights, roles, and responsibilities related to addressing discrimination in health care settings, and the empowerment of users of healthcare services so that they are aware of and able to demand their rights. This will enable them to hold those responsible accountable for discrimination-free health care settings through rights literacy, patient charters, social accountability monitoring, community support, and other tools.

Source: Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings, 27 June 2017




Type of resource: Books and reports

Agenda for Zero Discrimination in Health Care (2016)
WHO Global Health Workforce Alliance & UNAIDS

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (2016)
United Nations

Open resource