Written by Joanna Hughes

Today is a momentous occasion: it’s Human Rights Day, and the 70th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being -- regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  

While the world is a very different place today, the principles outlined in the Declaration are just as important as they were decades ago. Wondering where you fit into the mix as a medical student? Here’s a closer look at the intersection of medicine and human rights.

Shining the Light

In a Washington Post article, medical school professor Ranit Mishori writes of his experiences teaching a Health and Human Rights course to first-year medical students. Every year on the first day of this elective class, Mishori asks students about their familiarity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The consistent results? Less than a handful say they’ve heard of it, while none have actually read it.

This is problematic for several reasons, argues Mishori. For starters, many of its articles pertain to the work of medical professionals, such as the prohibition of torture and cruelty (Article 5), a well as the rights to leisure and rest, education, employment, safe standards of living and movement (Articles, 24, 26, 23, 25, and 13, respectively). Mishori goes on to cite additional ways in which human rights and medicine interact, including everything from the right to marriage and family (Article 16) to freedom from discrimination (Article 2).

Mishori’s main point? “In a world where physicians in training are encouraged to know the Patient’s Bill of Rights — posted on the walls of nearly every hospital and clinic in the country — why are we not teaching them the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties and covenants?”

And while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might not directly speak to health as a fundamental human right, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative attest to this imperative. In fact, according to WHO, the notion of patient rights emerged from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “What is owed to the patient as a human being, by physicians and by the state, took shape in large part thanks to this understanding of the basic rights of the person,” the health body insists.

Two “Parallel Mechanisms”

While some may think of many human rights issues as third-world problems, this is not the case. “Doctors do not have to set a foot in an overseas hospital or clinic to encounter patients whose health is affected by human rights violations. They encounter individuals who have come to the United States from other parts of the world deeply affected by human rights violations, including torture, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sex trafficking, substandard prisons, child labor or illegal working conditions. [...] These conditions also affect scores of U.S.-born people, in every corner of the nation,” argues Mishori.

This is not a new perspective. At the 51st World Medical Assembly (WMA) in Tel Aviv in 1999, the WMA issued a resolution calling for the inclusion of medical ethics and human rights in the curriculum of medical schools worldwide.

“In much the way same that anatomy, physiology and biochemistry are a solid base for understanding the human body, how it works, how it can fail or otherwise go wrong, and how different mechanisms can be used to repair damaged structure and functions, there is a clear need for physicians in training to understand the social, cultural and environmental contexts within which they will practice.  This includes a solid understanding of the social determinants of health,” WMA proposes.

Research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, meanwhile, contends that human rights and medical ethics are “parallel mechanisms, the former working at the sociopolitical level and the latter more at the level of the doctor-patient relationship.” The authors further assert, “Human rights and medical ethics are complementary, and use of the two together maximizes the protection available to the vulnerable patient.”

Physicians on the Frontlines

While doctors all over the world support human rights indirectly every day, many are also on the front lines of the right for human rights. Physicians for Human Rights and Doctors Without Borders are examples of two organizations which provide lifesaving medical humanitarian care -- and which tell their stories to help shine the light on human rights abuses.

The takeaway? Whether you’re a pediatrician working in a medical practice or a surgeon in a conflict setting, you not only have the option of working to support human rights, but an obligation to do so. And understanding this role begins now.

Mishori concludes, “Maybe it is time to start handing out the Universal Declaration to medical students on the day they graduate. It is a guide as vital to deeper understanding and quality execution of their jobs as the Hippocratic Oath. Sickness and health everywhere are rooted in human rights and should be understood in that context. It is our duty as educators to make sure medical students understand that, and have all of the tools to be not only competent clinicians, but compassionate citizens of the world and agents of change.”

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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