Industry Voices—The Massachusetts Medical Society declares 'health care is a basic human right'

The Massachusetts Medical Society is the first state medical society to assert through an organizational policy that healthcare is a basic human right, a policy subsequently supported by the American Medical Association. 

Specifically, the 25,000 physician- and student-members of the Massachusetts Medical Society recognize that “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, in all its dimensions, including health care, is a basic human right.

The provision of health care services, as well as optimizing the social determinants of health is an ethical obligation of a civilized society.”

We have heard from many patients and colleagues since that historical day who have lauded that decision, and we are quite proud of that accomplishment. It has been called “timely,” “progressive” and “thoughtful.”

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Although our medical society has watched closely as recent legislative and regulatory decisions have attempted to erode access to and quality of healthcare for many citizens, particularly our most vulnerable, the notion-turned-policy that healthcare is a basic human right is not a political statement.

It is a long overdue principle that will guide our work in the areas of patient and physician advocacy and education as well as practice management support. We believe the notion that healthcare is a basic human right should be the primary principle to guide that envisioned future. 

It is unfathomable that citizens of the U.S. have poorer outcomes and live shorter lives than those in other high-income nations. But, when physicians cite firsthand knowledge of the impact social determinants have on the health of our patients, we encounter the stark reality that factors such as food insecurity and housing instability present sometimes immovable obstacles to quality healthcare and the opportunity for health.

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Patients who screen positive for social inequities, one could argue, should be viewed as being in just as much danger as those who show early signs of chronic disease or illness.

As a critical point of clarification, the medical society has been thoughtful and careful in our pursuit to make certain the declaration that healthcare is a basic human right is not conflated with an endorsement for cost-free insurance coverage. We recognize that in achieving access we must continue to strive to create high-value, efficient, equitable and effective coverage possible across the care continuum. 

Importantly, this policy also is not a bumper sticker or a flag we’ll hang from our office building. It is a commitment. It is a guiding principle.

We are fortunate to practice medicine in a time of unprecedented clinical and technological advancement, but the core principles to guide the envisioned future reforms and goals of healthcare have not clearly been stated—namely, to make certain that healthcare is a right that every American enjoys just like fire, police and military protection and many other state and federal services often taken for granted.

Strategies to address future healthcare reforms and goals cannot be accomplished without stating and acknowledging the principles that will serve as the compass by which decisions will be made.

As physicians, we all are advocates for our patients, and many of us take that advocacy outside of our exam rooms and hospitals and into regulatory and legislative arenas.

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It is there where the Massachusetts Medical Society believes the notion—the policy—that healthcare is a basic human right should be a pillar on which all work to improve patient health and care is built.

One of the most powerful statements a physician can make is that she or he recognizes and applies in practice that all patients, by virtue of rights afforded as human beings, are entitled to the opportunity for the best possible healthcare we can deliver.

We would encourage all medical societies and physicians to consider recognizing the opportunity for healthcare as a basic human right and hold that principle as their north star when pressing for actions, policies and regulations that aim to ensure our patients face no barriers to dignified, quality healthcare.

Maryanne C. Bombaugh, M.D., is president of the Massachusetts Medical Society; Alain Chaoui, M.D., is the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society; and Jack Evjy, is a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.