December 7, 2023
Health as a Human Right: The American College of Physicians Takes a Stand

Health as a Human Right: The American College of Physicians Takes a Stand

The American College of Physicians (ACP) recently published a position paper in the Annuals of Internal Medicine, affirming that health is a fundamental human right. While the United Nations recognized health as a human right in 2000, different nations have varying perspectives on the matter. In the paper, the ACP examines the ethical obligations, human rights, and health reforms to explain why the United States should prioritize health for all.

Defining Human Rights and Health

The United Nations defines human rights as inherent to every person, irrespective of factors like race, nationality, or religion. However, interpretations of human rights differ across countries and legal systems. While torture is universally considered a violation of human rights, opinions on health and access to Human Rights and Health are more divided. Some view health as a basic right, while others believe it is something to be earned based on merit or financial means.

These differing views influence national policies, with countries like Brazil providing free healthcare for all citizens, while the United States remains the only developed nation without universal healthcare. In the US, healthcare is notoriously expensive, and a significant portion of the population lacks health insurance.

UN documents play a crucial role in shaping human rights law. Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that an adequate standard of living, including medical care, is a fundamental right for all individuals. The UN Committee further defined health as a fundamental human right that is essential for the exercise of other rights.

Debates and Denials

Unfortunately, many nations have debated or outright denied this definition. Some, including the United States, have refused to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. While the ACP acknowledges the conflicting views between the legality of this covenant and the US tradition of individual freedom, it argues that ethical and moral considerations should take precedence over legal perspectives.

The ACP’s Position Paper

The ACP’s position paper articulates its belief that recognizing health as a human right would bring about positive changes in US healthcare policy, benefiting patient-physician relationships. The paper was developed by the ACP Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights Committee (EPHRC) and underwent extensive review by various ACP boards. On April 24, 2023, the ACP Board of Regents approved the paper for publication as the official ACP stance on health as a human right.

In its first position, the ACP emphasizes the principle of human dignity and its implications for health. While recognizing that the human right to health may seem idealistic, the ACP highlights the significant progress made by the medical field in improving human lifespan and well-being. They also underscore the importance of considering moral and ethical perspectives on health, not just from the physician’s viewpoint but also within society as a whole.

The second position of the ACP draws on the UN Committee’s framework for medical care, which includes availability, acceptability, and accessibility. The ACP acknowledges that recognizing health as a human right does not mean unlimited demands for medical interventions or medication. Rather, it signifies that medical care should protect people from preventable and significant threats to their health.

The paper emphasizes how ethical implications of health as a human right can inform action and accountability at national and local levels. For example, by adopting a human rights-based approach to healthcare, society can ensure that vulnerable and marginalized groups have equal access to healthcare.

In its final position, the ACP highlights the responsibilities of both physicians and society in achieving excellence in healthcare. While the obligations of medical professionals are self-evident, society must also contribute by providing resources during crises and considering organ donation.


The ACP’s position paper firmly asserts that health is a fundamental human right. By examining the ethical obligations, human rights, and health reforms, the ACP aims to promote the recognition of health as a human right in the United States. This shift in perspective has the potential to bring about positive changes in healthcare policy and improve patient-physician relationships.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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