Duty of Care in Health and Social Care: Responsibilities & Examples

May 21, 2021
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Working in health and social care means you have a responsibility to care for individuals, promote their wellbeing, and prevent them from anything that results in harm. This is your legal duty of care and something you must always abide by.

This article will explain your duty of care, how it relates to safeguarding and how to demonstrate this responsibility, even when you are faced with potential dilemmas.

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What is the Duty of Care in Health and Social Care?

A duty of care is a legal and professional obligation to safeguard others while they are in your care, using your services or are exposed to your activities. This means always acting in their best interests, not acting – or failing to act – in a way that causes harm, and acting within your abilities without taking on anything that lies outside of your competence.

As a health and social care worker, your legal duty of care extends to those you support, yourself, your colleagues and anybody else who is present in your work setting. For example, if you work in a care home, your duty of care is just as important towards maintenance workers and cleaners as it is towards service users.

Your duty of care is not something that you can opt out of. In health and social care, the duty is included within the code of conduct for healthcare support workers and adult social care workers, and it typically forms part of your job description. This shows how important it is to understand the duty and have the knowledge, understanding and competencies to apply it in your role.

Adult with support needs playing guitar in front of his carer

Why Does Duty of Care Contribute to Safeguarding?

While a duty of care applies in any setting – for example, a business operating in an office block would still have a duty of care towards employees and visitors – it is particularly important in health and social care settings due to safeguarding. This is because such settings often care for those who are most at risk of harm or abuse, such as children or adults with support needs.

As a result, safeguarding and your duty of care go hand in hand. You have a duty to safeguard individuals, promote their wellbeing and ensure that people are kept safe from abuse, harm or injury. You also have a duty to act if you believe that others are not upholding their duty of care – for example, reporting it if somebody you work with is mistreating adults, or whistleblowing if you are concerned about organisational wrongdoing.

Finally, your duty not to work beyond your competencies also closely links to safeguarding. For example, if an individual confides in you that they are being abused by a family member, you have a duty to escalate this and respond to it in accordance with your workplace policies and procedures. However, it would not be your duty to take the matter into your own hands – for example, by confronting the family member yourself – as this lies outside your competencies.

Working in accordance with your duty of care and safeguarding adults is not only a legal requirement, but will benefit those you care for by helping you to deliver high quality care, reduce workplace incidents and make it a safer environment, and empower people to raise any concerns they have.

Nurse fulfilling her duty of care towards a patient in hospital

How Do Health and Social Care Workers Demonstrate Duty of Care?

As a health and social care worker, your duty of care should be ingrained in all of your work and must be factored into everything you do. For example, if you are helping an individual to make a decision, you must bear in mind that your duty of care specifies that you need to support independence and their right to make their own choices as much as possible.

Some other ways that health and social care workers demonstrate duty of care as part of their work activities include:

  • Communicating well and in a way that meets individual needs. Individuals in your care may have certain communication needs, and meeting these is essential if you are to comply with your duty of care.
  • Addressing any concerns, such as those of abuse or neglect. Following your workplace’s policies and agreed ways of working when responding to these concerns is a crucial part of your duty. You must also address any comments or complaints, and respond appropriately to conflicts, as part of your duty of care.
  • Ensuring that an individual’s privacy and dignity is maintained at all times – for example, knocking on the door or announcing your arrival before entering an individual’s room, or gaining consent if you need to go through their belongings.
  • Completing care plans for all individuals to ensure that their care is person-centred and recognises their individual wants and needs. Any changes in a person’s care must be documented in this plan.
  • Conducting risk assessments to make sure that the individual is not in any danger and to prevent them from harm.
  • Keeping training up-to-date so that staff understand their responsibilities and are well-placed to notice any safeguarding concerns and act accordingly.

Examples of Duty of Care in Health and Social Care

Below are some examples of how your duty of care may look in practice.

Example 1 – You are a healthcare support worker and you need to carry out personal care for an individual. You must ask for their consent before you touch them, explain what you are going to do and ensure their body is discreetly covered at all times. This helps to maintain their dignity and uphold your duty of care.

Example 2 – You provide domiciliary care to an individual who has Parkinson’s disease. You notice that they have not been eating much food recently and when you ask them about it, they tell you that they are struggling to clasp utensils. As part of your duty of care, you must ensure that they are able to eat and drink. You provide them with some adapted cutlery and crockery and monitor the situation to see if it improves.

Example 3 – You are a manager in a care home and you have two new members of staff. As part of their job role they need to be able to use hoists to help move individuals. You undertake a risk assessment and discover that they have not had training in this area for a number of years. You have a duty of care to ensure they are trained in using hoists safely before you allow them to use them. Failing to do so may cause harm to your staff and residents, resulting in a breach in your duty of care.

Nurse providing domiciliary care in a lady's home

Addressing Responsibilities and Managing Duty of Care Dilemmas

Your duty of care requires you to promote the safety and wellbeing of individuals and prevent them from coming to harm. However, you must also uphold their right to make their own choices, even if you believe it’s an unwise choice. Individuals have a right to live as independently as possible and make their own decisions. If they are legally capable (i.e. they have the mental capacity), this must be supported and not taken away from them.

It’s likely that you will care for individuals who make decisions that you don’t necessarily agree with, but you still have to support their decisions. This is where dilemmas may occur. In a lot of situations, the individual’s right to make their own choices (even if they are poor ones) overrides your duty of care.

For example, you may support an individual who has been strongly advised to stop smoking as it is exacerbating their lung disease. They have gone three months without a cigarette, but now they say they want to have one and go to a shop to buy one. Although you know it is dangerous for the individual to have the cigarette, you cannot stop them from having one as they have the right to make their own decision.

If you are in a situation where you are faced with a dilemma between your duty of care and an individual’s right to make choices, it’s important that you tread carefully. Ensure that the individual is informed about their choices and explain what would happen if they make that choice. Look at ways the risk can be reduced, such as by completing a risk assessment, and support them in making the decision and promoting their independence.

The only exception to this is if you believe that abuse is taking place, you have concerns about the individual’s ability to understand the implications of their decision, or if serious harm would occur to the individual – or others – if the decision was made. 

Your duty of care is a legal obligation and something you must abide by. You have a duty to promote individual wellbeing and act in their best interests, protect them from harm, and always act within your competencies. You may sometimes encounter dilemmas in your duty of care, but it’s important you support individuals to make their own decisions, even if you believe the decision is unwise.

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