New Online Human Rights Course for Prison Doctors

Doctors working in prisons who detect signs of torture or other degrading treatment and who face dilemmas about their dual loyalty to the state and to their professional ethical code now have a new web-based course on human rights and ethics to help them.

The course, developed by the Norwegian Medical Association and launched in Geneva today by the World Medical Association, is designed to assist doctors working in prisons by raising their awareness of their role in identifying abuse and torture, and by assisting them in dealing with human rights violations. It is one of several WMA programs to assist and guide physicians and others in the appropriate care of vulnerable populations.

Among the dilemmas addressed by the course are cases where doctors:

  • are asked to declare prisoners fit for punishment, such as solitary
  • confinement;
  • are asked to examine shackled patients;
  • are unsure whether and to whom to report cases of abuse or torture in
  • prison;
  • are under pressure to witness restraint of violent prisoners;
  • are under pressure from the authorities not to refer prisoners to clinics
  • outside the prison;
  • are under pressure to share prisoners’ medical records or confidential health status with non medical staff;

Dr. Delon Human, secretary general of the WMA, said: ‘The issue of the health of prisoners has always been very problematic and raises several ethical questions. Prison doctors must be able to provide high-quality health care in a demanding environment without breaching international human rights and ethical standards.

‘Doctors working in prisons face problems that are different from those that doctors working with the ordinary population meet. In many countries education of prison doctors is not a priority. Many of them do not even have access to international conventions and rules regulating health care services for prisoners. They encounter human rights violations, but do not know how to deal with them adequately.

‘We hope this course will meet some of the needs many prison doctors have for more knowledge and skills in human rights and medical ethics. We also hope that it will be a useful tool to physicians all over the world who are placed in similar positions and face similar problems.’

The course, which is accessible from or, addresses questions relating to issues such as the responsibility to report and to whom, hunger strikes and treatment of the mentally ill.

The course is accredited by the Norwegian Medical Association with 12 hours in postgraduate and continuing training for all specialties and those physicians who complete it will receive a course certificate. No course fee will be charged for those who want to complete the course.