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Discrimination in health and care services - why are you being treated unfairly?

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 if you’re someone who mustn’t be discriminated against when receiving health and 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.

Why are you being treated unfairly?

If you’re treated unfairly, it’s only discrimination if the reason behind the treatment is that you, or someone else, belongs to a particular group. People who belong to these groups have what are called protected characteristics.

The characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act when you receive health and care services are:

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

Example

You’re gay. An NHS dentist won’t register you as a new patient. But the reason is because they haven’t any spare capacity for new patients, not because you’re gay. You couldn’t complain about discrimination because of sexual orientation in this situation.

Unfair treatment because of who someone thinks you are

It’s also unlawful discrimination if someone treats you unfairly because they think you have a protected characteristic, even if you don’t.

This is called discrimination by perception.

Example

A GP receptionist is prejudiced against Muslims and always makes them wait longer for appointments. Because of your name, she thinks you’re Muslim even though you’re not. This is discrimination because of race, even if you’re not actually Muslim.

Unfair treatment because of someone you’re with or someone you know

It’s also unlawful discrimination if someone treats you unfairly because of someone you’re with or someone you know. This could be a parent, child, partner or friend. This is called discrimination by association.

Example

Your midwife is rude towards you because your partner is Black. This could be discrimination against you because of your partner’s race.

If you’re under 18

You can’t complain about age discrimination if you’re under 18. The Equality Act says age discrimination only applies to people who are 18 or over.

Example

A private clinic provides BSL interpreters for all adult patients who need help communicating. You’re deaf and your first language is BSL. However, you’re not provided with an interpreter because you’re 16 years old. This is unfair treatment, but because age discrimination only applies to people 18 and over, you can’t complain about unlawful discrimination because of age.

As you’re disabled you could, however, ask the clinic to provide an interpreter under their duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. If they refuse, you could make a discrimination claim on this basis under the Equality Act.

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.

Protection against discrimination under human rights law

Public authorities must follow the Human Rights Act 1998. The Human Rights Act also protects you from discrimination, but only in connection with your human rights under the Act. This means you mustn’t be discriminated against in your enjoyment of your human rights.

The protection against discrimination in the Human Rights Act is wider than in the Equality Act. It protects you from discrimination because of things like sex, race, disability and religion but it also protects you from discrimination because of other things. These are:

  • language
  • political opinion
  • national or social origin
  • property and birth
  • association with a national minority
  • other status - this includes sexual orientation, age and transsexual people.

Example

You have a medical appointment. You don’t speak English very well and you usually ask your son to come and interpret for you. However, this time you feel uncomfortable asking him to help you as the appointment is about a very personal matter. You ask for an interpreter, but the hospital says they can’t provide you with one.

This could be a breach of your right not to be discriminated against on the basis of language in your enjoyment of your right to privacy. You're being discriminated against because you can't enjoy your right to privacy whereas someone who speaks English and who doesn't need an interpreter,  would be able to enjoy their right to privacy.

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)

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