The Malta Independent 20 August 2019, Tuesday

European Patients’ Rights Day: Rights which should not be taken lightly

Giulia Magri Friday, 19 April 2019, 09:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

On 19th April, European citizens get together to celebrate Patients’ Rights Day. The European Patients’ Rights Day has become an annual event on the European and national political agendas to inform, discuss means of improving patients’ rights in Europe in each Member State. The European Charter of Patients’ Rights was drafted in 2002 by Active Citizenship Network, in collaboration with 12 citizens’ organisations from different EU countries. Gertrude Buttigieg from the Office of the Commissioner for Mental Health and representative of Malta Health Network (MHN) spoke to Malta Independent regarding the importance of the Charter, especially with European elections around the corner.

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“We are asking our MEP’s and future commission to put health at the heart of the EU agenda; with health at the heart, the EU can beat stronger”, said Buttigieg. She explained that health should be a European priority, as one cannot have a growing economy without healthy citizens. She added that in the past, the EU would feature health as a side issue to a bigger topic, and there must be a change in mentality.

What does the Charter include?

The European Charter of Patient’s Rights is made up of 14 rights ranging from the right for preventing measures, access to health care, information, free choice, to complain and for compensation in case of physical or psychological damage as a result of negligence. Buttigieg explained that currently the Charter is used as a form of a protocol for good practice within the public health services, but is not legally bound.

“The MHN were the first to promote the Charter back in 2008, and to bring it to the attention of citizens and authorities. It was then in 2013 when the Charter was mentioned in both manifestos of the political parties, which we thought was an indication that we will be introducing the European Charter of Patients’ Rights. We did not see any mention of the Charter again until 2016, when the Health Act mentioned Patient’s Rights, which includes the concept of respecting patients’ time and there are other Rights mentioned in the Maltese Charter; but it is not legally bound, just a point of reference.”

Buttigieg also said that many are not aware or informed about the Charter itself, and that people facing a medical inconvenience are less likely to know their full rights as patients. “We believe that these 14 Rights are not disseminated enough, and that when a problem does occur there is not an independent point of redress; some might feel uncomfortable having to go complain about an issue they are facing to the entity who are providing them a service, as it might just develop further problems.” An independent point of address could be an entity, a network or a title for somebody, where people can go and place their complaints and that the network or individual could act as an intermediate between the patient and the health care service.

Prevention is a key factor in health care and patients’ well-being

She mentioned how most of the rights mentioned in the Charter are all straightforward and beneficially for the patient, the first right being the ‘Right to preventive measures’. “We take vaccinations lightly in Malta because it is something many are aware of and do straight away, but vaccinations do not only protect me, but also protect the nation.” She explained that vaccinations act as a blanket protection and that any form of prevention should not be taken lightly.

She explained that prevention is considered to be the most cost economic measure in health care. “Prevention does not just require professions or check-ups, but could simply be changing one’s diet or life style.” She goes on to explain that there is a lot of work to be done to increase measure of prevention and to mould people from a very early age to learn about their health and to look after themselves. “If our prevention tools are as affective as we would like to believe, we would not be facing the obesity epidemic right now. I am not saying that we can control everything, some people have a predisposition for certain diseases or cancers, but a healthy lifestyle can help decrease the risk.” She explained that patients have the right to be fully aware of the preventions that are out there.

 

Four types of illiteracies patients face when it comes to understanding their right to information

Buttigieg explained that currently at MHN are discussing the four types of illiteracies Maltese and international patients are currently facing. “Firstly that there are groups of people who are illiterate, and then there are others who are lacking health illiteracy, therefore people are not knowledgeable enough about their health, what the symptoms are or how to access this information properly.” She explained that there is also a rise in digital illiteracy, as people are now looking towards websites for medical information, there are not taking into account whether what they are reading is coming from reliable and researched medical source. “This leads to digital health illiteracy, which is even affecting health professionals as some are concerned about the information they find online or do not have enough time to research the reliability.”

 She explained that although subjective, the right to information should be provided and available for everyone. “Many times, patients are given a bunch of forms to sign with very little explanation of what these papers mean and involve. Was the time taken to explain to the patients what they are signing to and under what consent?” It is not just the medical staff that must give a proper informed consent, also for the patient to learn what it means to be provided an informed consent, and that they have the right to complain and ask for compensation if not provided or suffer harm caused by a health service treatment. “Of course I would rather spend time with a patient explaining procedures and giving them an informed consent, rather than ending up in court.”

Buttigieg also mentioned that the Right to Privacy and confidentiality is something lacking in Malta. “When I am in a waiting room in a health centre, why does my name need to be shouted out through a microphone? Right now privacy is lacking in Mater Dei; I am fully aware that there are limitations but it is one thing that there is a critical situation for one month, but another if this issue drags on for a year. The medical staff and service is excellent, but the system is not up to the 21st Century standards we expect.

The Charter provides rights for patients but also for those providing the service.

When one reads through the Charter of Patients’ Rights, Buttigieg reflects that these rights for both patients and medical staff. “The Rights safeguard those people in the service, because if toy have a system in place to safeguard the security of patients, the service providers feel more comfortable and the outcome will be better.” She expressed that Malta has a good health care system, but that we should not be afraid to take the extra step to improve this.

“We bring up this European Charter every year, and we meet up with local policy makers to provide recommendations as we wish that these rights become part of our legislation. In the meantime we inform our organisation members to provide this information to their companies and therefore to their patients, ultimately snowballs effect spreading the importance of this charter.”

 

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