What has human rights got to do with end of life care?

A Sue Ryder Nurse with a patient

Do you understand how to meet the triple duty of the Human Rights Act? If not, read on.

In our normal day-to-day lives and in the media, the term ‘human rights’ is bandied about with very little understanding of what it actually means. Equally, in our lives as health and social care professionals, our understanding of human rights is often limited.

When we ‘safeguard’ someone or we make a ‘best interest decision’ about an individual using care services, what we’re actually safeguarding is someone’s human rights.

Despite this, there is a quirk in most organisations’ approach to training: while safeguarding and mental capacity are mandatory training for most health and social care professionals, human rights are not. The irony of this is that practitioners would feel more confident in safeguarding someone or making a best interest decision if they understood how these actions relate to their legal duty under the Human Rights Act (1998).

Values vs practice

Most organisations attach great importance to human rights and regard it as central to their organisational values. However, in everyday practice, many health and social care professionals’ knowledge of human rights is vague; they generally seem to assume that they and their employer must be abiding by human rights, otherwise they’d have been called out.

And I’ll be honest – before I took on my current role at Sue Ryder, I hadn’t realised just how useful the Human Rights Act could have been to me when it came to making decisions and acting in the best interests of the people I’ve provided care for in a number of roles and at a range of levels of seniority throughout my career.

Now that I’ve delivered over 15 training workshops on human rights in palliative care to over 160 professionals, including to safeguarding and mental capacity leads, I can see the huge difference that human rights can make to practice.

The missing piece of the jigsaw

I’ve noticed that everyone who attends a workshop realises that the Human Rights Act is the missing link in terms of practical application of knowledge. Suddenly, they can see how safeguarding, mental capacity and human rights are all pieces of the same jigsaw, and the legal framework all falls into place.

One of the reasons professionals find the workshop so helpful is that the Human Rights Act helps them to de-personalise decisions from their own moral and ethical beliefs, and instead empowers them to personalise decisions in line with what the person in their care wants. And, of course, it also provides a framework that protects professionals in law.

So, why are health and social care professionals so scared of human rights? And why don’t they use the Human Rights Act as their ‘friend’ when making decisions?

Common barriers

There are a number of barriers that I’ve come across as I’ve been discussing this with participants over the last few months:

  • unfamiliar language that can be very off-putting
  • lack of knowledge regarding human rights as a basis for safeguarding, mental capacity and protection orders
  • fear of introducing legal concepts into care delivery
  • lack of understanding about how knowledge of this can enhance care delivery and confidence.

Why human rights training?

As health and care organisations, we are trying to move away from a paternalistic approach to decision-making towards a balanced, shared approach to personalised care with articulated risks. The Human Rights Act can help us to achieve this transition, so it’s important that we as health and social care professionals overcome our fears and embrace what the Human Rights Act has to offer us.

Under the Human Rights Act, everyone working in health and social care has a legal duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of those in their care.

Do you understand how to meet that triple duty? Do you understand how human rights as a framework can help you to make balanced and ethical decisions?

If your answer is 'no', and your work is in any way connected to end of life care, you would benefit from coming along to the free Sue Ryder training workshop 'What Matters to Me: a human rights approach to end of life care’.

Find out more and book your free place

Visit www.sueryder.org/humanrightstraining


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