Human Rights in the Healthcare Sector: Current State of Play

June 2, 2022
  • Alice Pease portrait

    Alice Pease

    Manager, Human Rights, BSR

  • Jenny Vaughan portrait

    Jenny Vaughan

    Managing Director, Human Rights, BSR

  • Pinal Patel

    Former Manager, Healthcare, BSR

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the pharmaceutical (pharma) industry and its ability to deliver global solutions at speed and in an equitable manner. Regulatory and stakeholder expectations on the corporate duty to respect and manage human rights impacts are rising—and scrutiny on the performance of the healthcare sector is likely to continue.

Healthcare companies have a huge opportunity to improve the health and well-being of individuals and entire societies. However, their activities can also cause harm to the human rights of patients, employees, supply chain workers, and local communities.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), companies have a responsibility to prevent, mitigate, and remedy adverse impacts on people due to their business activities. As explored in previous BSR publications, salient human rights issues in the healthcare sector include ethical standards in research and development (R&D) and clinical trials, affordability, and accessibility of medicines and pharmaceuticals in the environment.

In the past 18 months, BSR has worked with leading healthcare companies to assess the state of play in human rights practices. Based on our analysis, we have developed a maturity curve to chart healthcare companies’ approach to human rights. We have identified four levels of maturity, from reactive compliance to public leadership on the business and human rights agenda.

From our research on the state of play of human rights due diligence in the pharma sector, we have concluded the following:

Healthcare Companies Are Making Progress

Leading pharma companies have made strides in recent years to meet human rights due diligence expectations in line with the UNGPs. Most companies assessed have a defined approach to human rights, with a basic due diligence process in place and dedicated functions working on human rights. Furthermore, it has become common practice for pharma companies to have made commitments to human rights, identify salient human rights issues, and report on their human rights due diligence.

Leading Pharma Companies Have Embedded Human Rights into Business Operations

Leaders in the field are demonstrating a strong level of integration of human rights into their business operations. Industry best practice includes conducting human rights assessments not just at a corporate level, but also a country level (either internally or with support from external consultants), by training internal auditors on human rights requirements to ensure they can support diligence processes and increased transparency on key challenges.

Insufficient Focus on Vulnerable Groups

A common challenge for healthcare companies is the integration of a vulnerable groups lens in their human rights due diligence. Most companies in the healthcare sector fail to identify vulnerable groups—including women, children, and people with disabilities—along with issues that may impact them more significantly. They also fail to identify or provide grievance mechanisms that are adapted to diverse groups.

Healthcare companies can go further to push the boundaries toward the business and human rights agenda. While a handful of companies are strongly aligned with the expectations of the UNGPs, there is scope for pharma companies to set the bar even higher on business and human rights. This includes through public leadership and proactive engagement on salient issues and increased transparency on human rights due diligence. Current and emerging issues for the pharma industry—including access to health, the nexus between climate and health, and bioethics challenges—demand robust human rights practices and industry collaboration.

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