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Discrimination in health services - who's treating you unfairly?

This advice applies to Scotland

If you’ve been treated unfairly by a healthcare 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 who mustn’t discriminate against you when you receive health 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’s meant by health services?

Health services include many different services to do with your health and well-being. They can be provided by the NHS or a private healthcare provider.

Services provided by the NHS

Here are examples of health services provided by the NHS:

  • GP and dental surgeries
  • hospitals and clinics
  • walk-in centres and minor injury units
  • ambulances
  • pharmacists
  • physiotherapists
  • health services in your home by health visitors, midwives and nurses
  • health services in schools or prisons
  • eye care services
  • sexual health services
  • counselling, therapy and mental health services
  • treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Services provided by private healthcare providers

Here are examples of private health services:

  • treatment in a private hospital or clinic
  • private dental treatment
  • private counselling and psychotherapy
  • private physiotherapy
  • private treatment for drug or alcohol abuse
  • alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy paid for privately.

Who mustn’t discriminate against you?

Both the NHS and private healthcare providers have a duty not to discriminate against you. It doesn’t matter if the healthcare provider is public or private. And it doesn’t matter if you have to pay for the services or not.

People who mustn't discriminate against you in health and care services include - for example:

  • professional medical staff, such as consultants, doctors and nurses
  • administrative staff, like receptionists
  • managers
  • security staff
  • cleaners
  • ambulance drivers.

Organisations like NHS Health boards and Healthcare Improvement Scotland, who oversee and help deliver healthcare must also follow the Equality Act.

Who’s providing the health service?

It’s not always easy to find out who’s providing your healthcare. For example, you may be an NHS patient referred to a private clinic or a private patient in an NHS hospital. Or you may be an NHS patient detained under the Mental Health Act in a private clinic.  

Both private and NHS healthcare providers are not allowed to discriminate against you. But, sometimes it's important to know who's providing the health service as you may have additional rights.  

NHS

If you’re being treated by the NHS, you mustn't be discriminated against. The NHS must also follow human rights law. This means you have additional rights under the Human Rights Act 1998. Even if you’re a private patient in an NHS hospital, they still have a legal duty to protect your human rights.

The NHS also has a duty to promote equality. This is called the public sector equality duty.

If you want to complain about discrimination, you can use the Human Rights Act and the public sector equality duty to strengthen your case.

Private healthcare providers

If you’re being treated by a private healthcare provider, they must not discriminate against you. However, they don’t normally have to follow the Human Rights Act, except in certain situations.

When must private healthcare providers follow human rights law?

If an organisation provides NHS funded services, they should also follow the Human Rights Act. This includes services provided by private companies, social enterprises and charities.

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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