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NHS patients’ rights

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

About this information

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health is the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.  You can get help with complaints from the Patient and Client Council, and the work of social services departments is carried out by Health and Social Care Trusts. The NHS in Northern Ireland is called Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSCNI).

Right to a GP

People who are ordinarily resident in the UK, including people from other EEA countries and abroad, have the right to be registered with a GP.  You can choose which GP you want to be registered with.  The GP does not have to accept you. However, if they do refuse to accept you, they must have reasonable grounds for doing so, and must give you their reasons in writing – see under heading Registering with a GP.

For more information on NHS treatment for people from abroad, see NHS charges for people from abroad

Choosing a GP

You can get a list of local GPs from nidirect, where you can search by Health Trust, at www.nidirect.gov.uk

Or you can search by town in Northern Ireland by going to the Health and Social Care website at online.hscni.net

The list will contain the following information about each GP:

  • surgery address and telephone number
  • gender of the GP
  • languages spoken by the GP, if the GP agrees this should be included
  • particular health interests, if the GP agrees this should be included
  • whether the GP does minor surgery
  • whether the GP offers contraceptive and/or maternity services
  • what the GP’s deputising arrangements are and whether a commercial deputising service is used.

The list may also contain information on whether any alternative therapies are available within the practice. It may also give details of surgery hours, whether there is an appointment system and whether there are any special clinics run at the surgery.

GP practice charters

Some GP practices have their own practice charters which describe the standards of services a patient can expect and the arrangements for certain services, for example, repeat prescriptions.  A practice charter may be displayed in the surgery premises.

If you are unable to find a GP

If you have any difficulties in registering with a practice or getting treatment as a temporary resident, you should approach the local Health Board for further help and advice.

It is possible for a Primary Care Trust to find you a local GP practice and put your name on its list of health service patients.

Registering with a GP

To register with a GP you need to choose the surgery you want to register with and make sure that it covers your area. You can do this by searching online on the HSCNI service finder website.   

You should contact the surgery you want to register with, and ask if they will take you on. If they agree, they will ask you to fill in a registration form. Some GP practices also want to see proof of your identity, like a passport, and proof of your address, like a utility bill.

In order to register with a doctor and obtain a medical card you need to fill in an application form, called an HS22X. It is available in English and in a range of other languages. The form should be presented to a doctor of your choice in the area in which you live. This form can be downloaded from the HSC Business website www.hscbusiness.hscni.net and is also available in any doctors' surgery.

Children under 16 should be registered by their parent(s), but you don't have to register with the same GP as the rest of your family.

If you're staying somewhere in the UK for less than three months, you can ask to be registered with a GP on a temporary basis. You can also register temporarily if you move around the country and have no permanent address.

NHS numbers and NHS medical cards

NHS numbers help staff across the NHS get up-to-date information on patients' health. However, you don't need an NHS number or medical card to get NHS treatment.

A hospital should give your baby an NHS number shortly after birth. If the baby was not born in hospital, a number will be given once the hospital has been told about the birth. If your baby was born abroad and doesn't have an NHS number, you can get one by registering with a GP.

To get a medical card for your baby, you may need to get their NHS number to a chosen GP. However, procedures for getting medical cards vary from area to area. If in doubt, you should ask your GP.

In Northern Ireland, to register a new baby, you'll need to fill in the registration card you receive from the General Registry Office when you register your baby's birth, and take it to your doctor's surgery.

If you don't have a medical card, or have lost it, you can download a form for a replacement medical card from the HSC Business website www.hscbusiness.hscni.net .

You can register with a GP without a medical card by completing a form supplied by the GP.

Problems with registering

Unless the GP’s register is full, or you live too far away for home visits, it is unlikely that the GP will refuse to accept you.  

However, if the GP does refuse to accept you, then they must have reasonable grounds for doing so. These must not have anything to do with race, gender, social class, age, religion, pregnancy or maternity, sexual orientation, appearance, disability or medical condition. The GP must give you the reasons for their decision in writing.

If a surgery does refuse to register you as a patient, you should contact your local Health Trust, which should be able to help you find a new doctor’s surgery.

Treatment from a GP

You are entitled to treatment from a GP at the surgery where you are registered. You have no automatic right, however, to see your own GP.

A GP must provide any treatment which is immediately necessary in an emergency, even if you are not registered with them.

Treatment outside surgery hours

All GPs must make sure that a service is provided for their patients when they are off duty.  This service could be provided by, for example, other partners in a group practice, a rota between GPs, a commercial deputising service (a locum), or a telephone number which patients can use out of hours.

Home visits

You cannot insist that a GP visits you at home.  A GP will only visit you at home if they think that your medical condition requires it.  A GP can also decide how urgently a visit is needed.

If you were to become seriously ill after a GP had refused a home visit, the GP could be found to be in breach of their contract with the NHS, or could be found to have been negligent.  You may therefore wish to make a complaint.

For information on making a complaint about a GP see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

You can be visited at home by a community nurse if you are referred by your GP or by a hospital consultant.  If you are not an urgent patient, you can make an appointment and should be visited on the day arranged.

You should also be visited at home by a health visitor if you have recently had a baby or if you are newly registered with a GP and have a child under five years.

Medication

If a GP decides you need medication, they will usually give you a prescription.  In some cases, for example, if the surgery is in an isolated area, the GP may provide the medication themselves.

A GP must supply any drugs needed for immediate treatment in an emergency. There is no prescription charge for these.

For more information about help with prescription charges, see Help with health costs. Also see NHS charges and optical voucher values.

Alternative therapies

Some GPs are qualified in alternative therapies and may offer these as part of their NHS treatment.  In some areas GPs may be able to refer a client to alternative practitioners, but this will not always be available.

Second opinions

You can ask your GP to arrange a second opinion either from a specialist or another GP.  However, the GP does not have to do this if they do not think it necessary.  You have no right to a second opinion.

You do have the right to see a GP competent to deal with your particular case.  If a GP refers you for a second opinion, you cannot insist on seeing a particular practitioner.  However, you should not be referred to someone you do not wish to see.

If the GP refuses to arrange a second opinion, you may wish to change your GP, see under the heading Changing a GP.

If a GP is unsure about a diagnosis, they could be found negligent if they failed to refer you to a specialist and you suffered as a result of this.  If you have not been referred for a second opinion and have suffered as a consequence you may wish to complain.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland

GP charges

There is no charge for basic GP treatment for NHS patients who live in the UK.  There are charges for visitors from overseas, except in the case of an emergency.  There may also be charges for certain services, for example, check-ups for employees and vaccinations for travelling abroad.

For more information, see Help with health costs.

Changing a GP

You can change your GP at any time you wish without having to give a reason.  You do not need the consent of your GP to change GPs.  When you have found another GP willing to accept you, you should contact them and ask if they will take you on - see under the heading Registering with a GP.  You can then make an appointment to see the new GP immediately.

Problems with changing a GP

If you wish to change your GP, but can't find a new GP who will accept you, you should contact your local Health Trust, who should find you an alternative.

GP removes patient from register

A GP may be able to remove you from the patient register in some situations, for example, because you move out of the practice area or are physically or verbally abusive to people at the practice. In most cases, the GP must have given you a warning, and provided you with the reasons for your removal from the register.  The GP will inform the Health Board who then notifies you.  You are entitled to emergency treatment, or the continuation of treatment which is occurring more than once a week, until you are accepted by another GP.

If you have been violent, or have threatened to be violent, towards your GP or practice staff, and the police have been informed, you can be removed immediately from the GP’s list.  You will only be accepted for emergency treatment by the GP who has removed you if the GP is satisfied that it is clinically necessary.

If you have been removed from a GP’s list you may wish to complain if you feel you have been treated unfairly, for example, if you feel discrimination was involved. You may be able to get help to do this from Citizens Advice. To find details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

If you move out of GP’s area

If you are changing address, but are not moving too far, you may wish to stay with your current GP.  You should ask the GP if they are willing to continue treating and visiting you at the new address.  A GP can continue to treat you if you have moved out of their practice area, but they will have to assure the Health Trust that they are willing to continue visiting and treating you.

Maternity services

If you are pregnant, you will be able to receive services from one or more of the following:

  • midwives, based either in a hospital or in a local health centre or clinic.  Midwives are responsible for the care of all normal pregnancies and labours.  You do not need to be referred to a midwife by your GP
  • a GP.  Not all GPs provide ante-natal care and arrange for delivery.  If your GP does not provide this service, you may wish to register with another GP for your maternity care.  
  • an obstetrician based in a hospital.  Generally, an obstetrician will only get involved if there are complications.  However, you can request to see an obstetrician, even if the midwife or GP is providing all the care.

You may have a range of options to choose from on the type of ante-natal care you want and where you give birth.  How much choice you have will depend on the area in which you live, but could include:

  • full hospital care.  This would only happen, in practice, if you require a high degree of medical intervention
  • shared care between a GP and hospital staff.  Normally, you would return home shortly after the birth
  • a home birth, with the birth attended by, and ante-natal care provided by, a midwife and possibly a GP.  You have the right to have your baby at home and may need to contact the supervisor of midwives to arrange for this.  Alternatively, you could register with a different GP just for your maternity care.

You can get information on local maternity services from your Health Trust, a health visitor or GP.  They will give you details of, for example, the type of care offered, where the birth can take place, what pain relief is offered and what tests are available and what they are for. In some areas, there are maternity charters which set out the rights of pregnant women and new mothers, and the standards of service you can expect.

If you are having difficulty obtaining the type of care you want, or you require more information on how maternity services are organised in your area, you should contact the supervisor of midwives at your local maternity hospital.

Right to hospital treatment

You cannot receive NHS hospital treatment without being referred by your GP, unless you are attending a special clinic, for example, for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, or you need urgent medical attention in an emergency.

Hospital Choice

If you are referred for a first outpatient hospital appointment, you can choose to go to any NHS hospital that provides a service or a private hospital. This may not apply if you are referred for mental health or urgent services. You can find out more about choosing your hospital at www.nidirect.gov.uk.

Violent patients

If you are violent or abusive to NHS staff, you may be refused NHS hospital treatment, or given a verbal or written warning before treatment is withheld or withdrawn.  Violent or abusive behaviour could include verbal abuse, threats, violence, drug or alcohol abuse in hospital, and destruction of property.  Each NHS trust can decide which types of behaviour could lead to treatment being withheld or withdrawn and how such policies are implemented.  However, treatment cannot be withdrawn for more than twelve months.  If you are violent or abusive to NHS staff and have severe mental health problems or are suffering life-threatening conditions, you will not be denied treatment.

Emergencies

If you need urgent medical attention, you can go directly to the accident and emergency department of a hospital without needing a referral from your GP.  Not all hospitals have accident and emergency departments.

If you need an ambulance to get to hospital in an emergency, it should arrive within a few minutes.  

It is the responsibility of the hospital providing the emergency treatment to meet the cost of treatment.  If emergency admission as an in-patient is needed, the cost will be met by the Health Trust where you live.

Treatment which may not be available on the NHS

Access to some forms of treatment, for example, in-vitro fertilisation, may be subject to the priorities of local Health Trust.  Some treatment may not be provided in your area.  Access to some treatment may depend on your need.  However, the NHS Constitution says that local decisions about the funding of drugs and treatment must be made rationally, following proper consideration of the evidence.  Information about local decisions must be made readily available to the public.

Health care providers must not discriminate against you because of race, sex, disability, pregnancy or maternity, religion or belief, sexual orientation or age when they decide what treatment to give you as a patient.  It is not against the law for them to discriminate against you because of your age.

For more information about discrimination, see under heading Discrimination

An NHS clinic has refused to offer fertility services to us, because we are a lesbian couple.  Can they do this?

No, they can't. If they are refusing to treat you just because you are a lesbian couple when the treatment would be offered to a straight couple, this is discrimination because of sexual orientation and it's against the law. You will need to get expert advice about how to take this further.

However, if they don't offer fertility treatment to any couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, you won't be able to complain about discrimination.

If you are unhappy because a certain form of treatment is not available, you should complain.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

Seeing a consultant

In Northern Ireland you have no right to see a consultant or a particular doctor, although this can be requested.  Your GP cannot insist that you see a particular consultant or doctor.  You do have the right to see a doctor competent to deal with your case. If you have special reasons for seeing a particular consultant, for example, if your child is the consultant’s patient, you could ask for an appointment, explaining your reasons for wanting to see them.  If you still have difficulty in seeing the consultant, you could write to the hospital administrator asking for their help.

You may wish to get a second opinion after seeing a consultant, either as an out-patient or an in-patient.  You will need to request this from the consultant, who may arrange for you to see someone else.  If the consultant does not agree, you could ask your GP to help.

Hospital waiting lists

You may be unable to receive the hospital treatment you need immediately, and may have to go on a waiting list.

Waiting lists do not operate on a last come, last served basis.  Where you are on a waiting list depends on a range of circumstances and may change.  If your condition deteriorates dramatically, your GP may recommend you be seen as a matter of greater urgency.  How long you will have to wait for a date to see a specialist or have an operation, will therefore depend on the severity of your condition, how busy the specialist is and other demands on the hospital facilities.

Waiting times in Northern Ireland can be viewed on the nidirect website.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

If you are waiting to be admitted to hospital, you should contact the hospital appointments’ department or the consultant on a regular basis, reminding the hospital staff that you are still waiting.  If you are prepared to go into hospital at short notice you should say so, in case a cancellation occurs.  You should also keep your GP informed of your condition, particularly if it deteriorates.

Care in hospital

Waiting times

If you go into an accident and emergency department (A & E department) you should be assessed immediately.

Staff will try to make sure you do not wait more than four hours between attending the A & E department and admission, treatment or discharge. However, this time limit is only a guideline.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

Operation cancellations

If your operation is cancelled, you should be offered an alternative date.

If your operation is cancelled for non-medical reasons on or after the day you are admitted to hospital, you should be offered another treatment date within 28 days. If this is not possible, your treatment should be funded at the time and at the hospital of your choice.

Visits

Most hospitals have visiting hours during which visits to patients can be made.  A person has no automatic right to visit you, and your doctor may decide that visits would be detrimental to the patient’s health.  There is usually also a limit to the number of people who can visit at any one time. The restrictions on visits from children are the same as those for other visitors.

If a person wishes to visit you outside visiting hours, they should discuss this with the ward sister.  If they cannot get permission from the ward sister, they should contact the hospital administrator if they wish to pursue the matter.

Financial help with visits

If you're getting Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance or Pension Credit, you may be able to get a budgeting loan for travel costs to visit a sick relative.

Check if you can get extra help if on benefits or your benefits have stopped.

Children

There may be a number of issues which you may wish to consider if your child is to go into hospital, for example, whether you can stay with your child, how much help you can give with feeding and looking after your child and what will happen to your child’s education.  

In Northern Ireland, a charter covering services for children and young people sets out the standards of care that children and their parents should receive.

A child should usually be admitted to a children’s ward under the supervision of a consultant paediatrician.  If your child is in an adult ward you may wish to complain.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health has strongly recommended to hospitals that they allow unrestricted visiting on children’s wards.  Hospitals should also allow parents to be with the children as much as possible.  This could include allowing you to stay overnight at the hospital.  You should make enquiries before your child goes into hospital about what arrangements can be made.

If you are finding it difficult to visit a child in hospital, for example, if you have other children at home, you may wish to discuss this with the medical social worker at the hospital.

Single sex wards

You do not have the right to be cared for in a single-sex ward.  However, all NHS hospitals are expected to get rid of mixed-sex wards, except where it is in your best interests or because you have chosen to be in a mixed-sex ward. For example, it might be in your best interests to be treated in a mixed-sex ward in a life-threatening emergency. A hospital can be fined for each day that you have to stay in a mixed-sex ward if there is no good reason why you have to be there.

In Northern Ireland efforts will be made to offer you a bed on a single sex ward where possible.

Patients who die in hospital

If a patient dies in hospital, NHS staff should inform relatives and the patient’s GP as soon as possible, and advise the relatives of the arrangements that need to be made.

An NHS Trust may be responsible for the funeral arrangements if there are no relatives or the relatives are unable to afford the cost and do not qualify for a funeral payment from the social fund.

Find out about help with funeral payements on NIDirect.

Using mobile phones in NHS hospitals

You should be allowed to use your mobile phone in an NHS hospital. This includes using your phone on a ward, as long as it's not a risk to your safety or that of other patients and doesn't affect the operation of electronically sensitive medical equipment.

All NHS trusts should have a written policy on the use of mobile phones which you can ask your hospital to see. There should be signs up in all hospital areas which say clearly whether you can use a mobile phone there or not. 

Hospital charges

There is no charge for most hospital treatment for NHS patients who live in the United Kingdom.  There are charges for visitors from overseas, except in the case of an emergency.  However, there are charges for the emergency examination and treatment of people involved in road accidents.  There are also charges for certain services, for example, beds with more privacy, alternative menus, patients' telephones and televisions.

For information about charges for overseas visitors, see NHS charges for people from abroad.  

For information about charges for people involved in road accidents, see Traffic accidents.

Paying for treatment not available on the NHS – 'top-up' payments

There are some treatments used for certain illnesses, for example, cancer, which are very expensive and are not available on the NHS.

If you do get private care, you should get this separately from the NHS care.

Financial help for hospital patients

If you're getting certain social security benefits, your entitlement may be affected if you go into hospital.

If you are concerned about the effect of hospitalisation on benefits, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at Citizens Advice. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

If you are on a low income, you may be able to get help with travel costs to hospital and with the cost of prescriptions, wigs and fabric supports.

For more information about help with NHS costs, see Help with health costs.

Discharge from hospital

You should not be discharged from hospital until your care needs are assessed and arrangements made to ensure that you will receive any necessary services when you are discharged.

Any assessment should take into account your wishes, the wishes of your family and of any carer.  You should be kept fully informed and involved, be given sufficient time to make decisions, and be told how to seek a review of any decisions made.  You can ask for a reassessment of your needs if circumstances change in the future.

For more information about community care services and assessments, see Community Care.

Unsatisfactory arrangements before or after discharge

You may not be satisfied with arrangements for your discharge from hospital because, for example:

  • you feel that you need to remain in hospital for further in-patient treatment
  • you are not satisfied with the community care services that have been arranged for you when you are to leave hospital
  • you do not want to be sent to a care home.

Before discharge takes place, you, or your family, carer or representative, have the right to ask for a review of the decision which has been made about your eligibility for continuing NHS care.

If you are not satisfied with arrangements that have been made for you after you have been discharged, you can complain.  If you are not satisfied with any medical services you are receiving from the NHS, you should use the NHS complaints procedure.  If you are not satisfied with community care services which have been arranged or provided by the local authority, you should complain to the local authority using its complaints procedure.

If you are unhappy with your discharge from hospital or with the arrangements made for you after discharge, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at Citizens Advice.  To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

Examination and treatment

You should not be examined or given any treatment or operation without your consent, unless:

  • you have a notifiable disease or are a carrier of a notifiable disease
  • you have been detained under the Mental Health Act, in certain circumstances
  • your life is in danger, you are unconscious and you cannot indicate your wishes
  • the patient is a child who is a ward of court and the court decides that a specific treatment is in the child’s interests
  • a court or someone who has parental responsibility authorises treatment. A person whose treatment is authorised by a court must be given an opportunity to defend their case against treatment in court.

In some cases, it is good practice to ask you, the patient to sign a consent form, but in other cases consent can be obtained orally.  For example, it is good practice to obtain written consent for any procedure or treatment carrying substantial risk or side effects.  If you are capable, it is good practice to obtain written consent for general anaesthesia, surgery and certain forms of drug therapy.  Oral or written consent should be recorded in your notes with relevant details of health professionals’ explanations.

Even if you sign a consent form, the signature may not be a valid form of consent if you have not been given appropriate information to be able to give informed consent.  Similarly, consent for one procedure does not imply consent for a further procedure or form of treatment.

The doctor must inform you of the nature, consequences, and any substantial risks involved in the treatment or operation, before you give your consent. It is for the doctor to decide exactly how much to tell you, the patient.

Children

In Northern Ireland, a parent's consent may be required for any medical treatment for a young person aged under 16. However, in practice, if the young person understands the implications of the treatment involved, they can consent to, or refuse, medical treatment themselves.

A young person over 16, if competent, can give their own consent to treatment, although most hospitals will require parental permission to perform an operation on a young person under 18.

Experiments, medical research and teaching

In general, if a doctor wishes to carry out research on you, your consent has to be given.  However, if a child under 16 is not competent to decide, a parent or court can consent to research on their behalf.

You should be given a full explanation of the procedures and risks involved.  It should also be made clear to the patient that you can withdraw from the research at any time.  Appropriate safeguards should always be in place to protect patient confidentiality.

It is possible to carry out research on people who are not able to make decisions for themselves – that is, people who lack mental capacity. Certain safeguards have to be met first.

For more information about mental capacity, see Managing affairs for someone else.

You have the right to refuse to participate in teaching without your treatment being affected.  If you do not want to be involved in teaching, it is advisable to inform the hospital in advance.

Right to refuse treatment

You can refuse any treatment if you wish (but see under heading Consent).  When you visit a doctor, this usually implies consent to examination and treatment.  The doctor cannot act against specific instructions, so you should tell the doctor about any treatment you do not want.

If there are a number of alternative treatments which can be used to treat your condition, you should be given information on these. However, you cannot insist on a particular treatment if the doctor or consultant thinks this is not appropriate.

For information on making a complaint see HSC complaints in Northern Ireland.

You refuse treatment for your child

If you, a guardian or child refuse to give consent for treatment which a doctor thinks is necessary, the doctor is still obliged to treat the child.  The action the doctor takes will depend on how urgently the treatment is needed.

When a child’s life is in danger, the doctor has the right to do whatever is needed to save the child’s life.  If you or a guardian either fail to provide medical help for a child, or unreasonably refuse to allow treatment, you can be prosecuted for neglect.

Right to die

The law concerning whether a person has the right to die is unclear. You have a right to refuse or stop treatment at any time, even if this means that you may die.   However, it is normally illegal for a doctor to omit or carry out treatment with the specific intention of inducing or hastening death.  If you believe you may become so ill that you could no longer make the decision about treatment, you should tell the doctor beforehand at what stage you would want treatment to stop.

In some cases, if you are unconscious or have very little consciousness, a doctor can stop some life support treatment if there is no chance of you getting better, or if it's not in your best interests. However, only a court can give permission for this to happen.

You may wish to draw up a written document setting out what you would want to happen if you became too ill to give consent to medical treatment.  This is called an advance decision (also known as an advance directive or living will).  An advance decision refusing treatment is legally binding on health care professionals.  

If you are thinking of making an advance decision you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a solicitor or an adviser at Citizens Advice. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

If you are concerned about being treated against your wishes, you should ensure you make this clear at the time the treatment is proposed.

Removal of organs after death

Unless you have said you do not want parts of your body used for research or donated to others after your death, whoever is legally responsible for the body can allow organs to be donated.  This will usually be your personal representative.  Before organs can be removed from the body, medical staff must be certain that brain death has taken place, and a death certificate must be issued.

Access to medical reports and health records

You have the right to see most health records held about you, subject to certain safeguards.  You are entitled to be informed of the uses of the information, who has access to them and how you can arrange to see your records.  This information is provided in GP practices and NHS Trusts in the form of posters and leaflets.  For more information on how the information is issued, you may wish to speak to the health professional in charge of your case.

You have a right, subject to certain safeguards, to see any medical report written for an employer, prospective employer or insurer, by a medical practitioner who has responsibility for your ongoing care, for example, your GP or consultant and any medical practitioner who has treated you in the past.

For more information about access to personal records, see Using the law to protect your information.

Information about your medical history should be kept confidential, and should not be released to people who are not involved in your medical care without your consent. This includes your relatives, unless you are unable to give consent yourself. There are some exceptions to this rule.  For example, medical information about you may be disclosed if it would prevent serious harm to others.

Information about NHS services

You have a right to detailed information on local health services, including quality standards and maximum waiting times.  This information can be obtained from your GP, or local Health Trust.

The Department of Health has produced a Code of Practice on Openness in the NHS which states that patients should have access to available information about NHS services and policies, including information on standards under the NHS Plan.  A charge may be made for this information.

If you require any information from, for example, a hospital Trust, you should, under the Code, receive a reply within 20 working days of your request.

The NHS must not discriminate against you when providing information about NHS services.  For example, information must be available in formats which blind people can access.  NHS Direct can provide interpreters in many different community languages.

Health Information Services

In Northern Ireland, you can get information about health problems and NHS services on the nidirect website www.nidirect.gov.uk.

Health services in Northern Ireland are provided locally and regionally.  For information on the Health and Social Care Trust in your area, go to www.nidirect.gov.uk.

Information from your health care provider

Health care providers such as doctors, nurses and other practitioners must try to make sure that things are explained to you in a way you understand. If they don't do this, it could be argued, for example, that you have not given proper consent to treatment – see under heading Consent.

If it's difficult for you to communicate for any reason, for example because you don't speak English or you have a disability which affects your communication, they should take steps to present the information in a way you will understand. This could mean, for example, providing a language interpreter or a sign language interpreter.

In some circumstances, if a health care provider doesn't take steps to communicate with you properly, you can complain that they have discriminated against you. It might be race discrimination if you can't understand what they are telling you because English isn't your first language.  Or it might be disability discrimination if you can't understand what they are telling you because you have a disability, for example, if you're deaf.

If you need to talk about something of a personal medical nature which affects only women or men and you need an interpreter, you can complain about sex discrimination if the interpreter is not the same sex as you.

Discrimination

The NHS and other organisations or people providing health care services are not allowed to discriminate against you because of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or disability. Discrimination because of your age is not against the law.

If you're disabled, a health service provider must make reasonable adjustments to allow you to use their services. If they don't do this, they must be able to show that their failure to do so is justified, otherwise they will be discriminating against you.  Examples of making reasonable adjustments include providing information on audiotape as well as in writing, or installing a ramp to allow wheelchair access.

I have hearing difficulties and it is embarrassing when I go to the dentist – I can never hear them when the receptionist calls out my name.

You could ask your dental surgery to keep a record of all their patients with hearing difficulties. Receptionists can then come over and let you know when the dentist is ready to see you, rather than calling out your name.  The surgery should agree to this.  If they don't agree and they don't have a very good reason, they are probably discriminating against you and you should make a complaint.

If you think that a doctor, dentist, nurse or other health care professional is discriminating against you, you can complain about this. Ask to see a copy of the equality policy of the organisation they work for and point out where they are failing to keep to it.

For more information about discrimination see our discrimination pages.

In Northern Ireland go to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland website at: www.equalityni.org

Further Information

Contact details for the Health and Social Care Board Headquarters
12-22 Linenhall Street
Belfast
BT2 8BS

Phone number: 0300 555 0115
Email: enquiry.hscb@hscni.net
Website: www.hscboard.hscni.net

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