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Discrimination in health and care services - what’s the unfair treatment?

This advice applies to England

If you’ve been treated unfairly by a healthcare or care provider because of who you are, you may have been discriminated against.

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. If you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about what unfair treatment is unlawful discrimination when you receive healthcare or care services.

Top tips

If you want to know if unlawful discrimination has taken place, you need to check:

  • why you are being treated unfairly
  • who's treating you unfairly
  • what's the unfair treatment
  • how is the treatment unfair or what type of discrimination it is.

What unfair treatment can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act?

Only certain types of behaviour by a healthcare or care provider can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

What kind of behaviour can be unlawful discrimination?

The Equality Act says the following things could be unlawful discrimination by a healthcare and care provider if it's because of who you are:

  • refusing to provide you with a service or take you on as a patient or client
  • stop providing you with a service
  • giving you a service of worse quality or on worse terms than they would normally offer
  • causing you harm or disadvantage - the Equality Act calls this a detriment
  • behaving in a way which causes you distress or offends or intimidates you - the Equality Act calls this harassment
  • punishing you because you complain about discrimination, or help someone else complain - the law calls this victimisation.

Why are you treated unfairly?

Remember, it’s only unlawful discrimination if you’re treated unfairly by a healthcare or care provider because of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

Examples of unlawful discrimination

Here are some examples of when a healthcare or care provider mustn’t discriminate against you.

Refusing to provide you with a service

If a healthcare or care provider decides not to provide you with a service - for example, by refusing to take you on as a patient, this must not be because of a protected characteristic.

Example

A private residential care home must not refuse to accept you as a client because you’re gay. This would be discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Stop providing you with a service

If a healthcare or care provider decides to stop working for you or providing you with a service, this mustn't be because of a protected characteristic.

Example

Your local meals on wheels service stops providing you with a meals service when they find out your partner is transsexual. They’re still providing meals to other people in your area.  This would be discrimination against you because of your partner’s gender reassignment.

Giving you a service of worse quality or on worse terms than they would normally offer

When a healthcare or care provider provides you with a service, they must provide the same service they would normally offer other people. Otherwise it could be unlawful discrimination.

Example

Your local authority social services department mustn’t take longer to assess your needs because you’re an Irish Traveller. This is discrimination because of race.

Example

If you pay for private healthcare treatment, the provider must not charge you more because you’re a Muslim. This is discrimination because of religion or belief.

Causing you harm or disadvantage

A healthcare or care provider mustn't cause you any harm or disadvantage because of a protected characteristic. This would be unlawful discrimination.

Example

Your GP surgery mustn't make it more difficult for you to get an appointment because you’re Polish. This is discrimination because of race.

Harassing you

A healthcare or care provider mustn't behave in a threatening way or use abusive language which offends you or makes you feel intimidated. If it's related to a protected characteristic it's unlawful discrimination.

Example

A security officer at the hospital where you’re staying is being verbally abusive towards you because he doesn’t like gay people. This could be harassment related to sexual orientation.

Punishing you because you complain about discrimination

A healthcare or care provider mustn't punish you if you complain about unlawful discrimination or because you help someone who has been discriminated against.

Example

You complain about the treatment of your disabled mother to the manager of her care home. As a result, they increase her fees which they know you’re paying for. This would be victimisation because you complained about disability discrimination against your mother.

If you’re treated unfairly by a public authority

What's a public authority?

A public authority is an organisation which provides public services. This can be a public sector organisation, like an NHS hospital or social services. Private organisations or charities which carry out public services or functions are also called public authorities - for example, a private care home funded by a local authority.

If you've been treated unfairly but it's not unlawful discrimination

If you’ve been treated unfairly, but it’s not unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act, you may still be able to take action.

Public authorities must follow human rights law, as they’re covered by the Human Rights Act 1998. They're also covered by the public sector equality duty. If a public authority has breached your human rights or it's public sector equality duty, you can make a separate complain or claim.

You can also use human rights law and the public sector equality duty to make your discrimination case stronger.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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