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The right to health: key aspects and common misconceptions

OHCHR and the right to health

The right to health is an inclusive right, covering a wide range of elements that help us to lead healthy lives—things like safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, safe food, healthy working conditions and more. Other key aspects of the right to health are:

Accessibility: Health facilities, goods and services must be affordable, within reach physically and on the basis of non-discrimination.

Availability: Functioning public health and health-care facilities, goods and services must be in sufficient quantity.

Acceptability: The facilities, goods and services should respect medical ethics, and be gender-sensitive and culturally-appropriate.

Good quality: Health facilities, goods and services must be scientifically- and medically-appropriate, and in good working condition. 

Participation: Health care beneficiaries should have a voice in designing and implementing health policies which affect them.

Accountability: Providers and States should be held accountable for meeting human rights obligations for public health. People should have the possibility of seeking effective remedies for violations such as the denial of health services.

Freedoms: People must be free from non-consensual medical treatments, such as medical experiments or forced sterilization; torture; and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Entitlements: People are entitled to the opportunity to enjoy the highest attainable level of health; the right to prevention, treatment and control of diseases; access to essential medicines; and maternal, child and reproductive health, among other entitlements.  

Common misconceptions about the right to health

Misconception #1: The State has to guarantee us good health.

The right to health is not the same as the right to be healthy. Health is influenced by factors beyond State control, such as an individual's biological make-up. This is why we refer to it as the right "to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," rather than an unconditional right to be healthy.

Misconception #2: The right to health can only ever be a long-term goal. The right to health is subject to progressive realization. Yet States must show that they are concrete, deliberate and targeted steps, to the maximum of their available resources, to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health.

Misconception #3: A country's difficult financial situation justifies delaying or not taking action. States are still required, with immediate effect, to ensure the enjoyment of minimum essential levels of the right to health. They are called minimum core obligations, and the obligation that attaches to them is non-derogable, even in adverse circumstances. Budgets should be ring-fenced to ensure that essential goods and services are universally accessible.

Misconception #4. The right to health is only concerned with the delivery of health services. While the right to health would be meaningless without health service delivery, it can only be fully realized if attention is given to the other factors which impact our health, such as adequate water and sanitation, adequate housing and adequate food and nutrition. Discrimination, poverty, stigma and other socio-economic "determinants" of health should also be addressed as they can and do determine:

  • whether certain people receive health care or are denied it;
  • the quality of services people receive; and
  • whether people will opt to avoid seeking health care altogether.

Learn more about key aspects and common misconceptions concerning the right to health