"Access to reliable healthcare information is (or should be) a human right: Do you agree or disagree?" (15)

17 June, 2023

Dear Len,

Thank you for your message where you say: "I agree in principle, but how to implement and enforce it?"


I look forward to hear from any human rights lawyers among our membership. A brief introduction to international human rights law is provided here:


'The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the so - called International Bill of Human Rights...

'International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights...'

COMMENT (NPW): Our preceding discussions and the paper by HIFA and NYLS suggest that access to reliable healthcare information per se is not widely accepted as a human right in itself, but there seems to be wide consensus that it is a determinant of the right to health. https://www.hifa.org/about-hifa/hifa-universal-health-coverage-and-human... What this means in terms of States' obligations is unclear - do States have an obligation under international human rights law to address determinants of human rights? For me this is a no-brainer in terms of logic, on the basis that it is impossible to address human rights without addresssing their determinants. Again, I look forward to a human rights lawyer's perspective on this.

*If* States have an obligation under human rights law to address the determinants of human rights, and *if* they recognise that access to reliable healthcare information is a determinant of the right to health, then indeed they have a legal obligation to address the issue.

At the moment, the question of "how to implement and enforce it" is partly conjectural, as there needs first to be a legal obligation. But if a legal obligation can be demonstrated, there are many ways in which governments can act. A first step would be to recognise and announce that they have a duty to ensure that their citizens have access to reliable, relevant healthcare information, and to develop a national plan with all stakeholders to move in this direction. To my knowledge, there is no single State that has recognised this obligation. In terms of a national plan, there are many possible approaches, and the way forward is certainly multifaceted.

Such national action will not materialise out of thin air, nor as the result of a tiny project such as HIFA. It would surely require high-level multilateral commitment. I believe that the World Health Organization is uniquely placed to bring stakeholders together to develop a strategy to improve the availability of relevant, reliable healthcare information, and I am convinced this strategy needs to address the global evidence ecosystem holistically, rather than in a fragmented way as present. The weight of WHO as an advocate and convener would be a game-changer.

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global health community that brings all stakeholders together around the shared goal of universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA has 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting in four languages and representing all parts of the global evidence ecosystem. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK-based nonprofit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Email: neil@hifa.org