Row Over Mixed-Sex Hospital Wards

The government has been accused of failing to meet a promise to scrap mixed-sex wards in NHS hospitals. The Department of Health said its targets had been achieved, and 99% of trusts are providing single sex accommodation. But patients groups said they were getting an increasing number of calls from people who think they have been in mixed-sex wards. There appears to be confusion about the definition of the term.

Katherine Murphy, from the Patients Association, said there had been 25-30 calls in the last month to the charity’s helpline, mostly from elderly patients, who had been nursed on mixed-sex wards.

Andrew Lansley said it was not acceptable to claim that partitioned single-sex bays on mixed-sex wards were doing the job. “It you can be seen by patients of another sex, and they are coming and going past your bed in order to go to the toilet facilities you may not think you have the privacy you want.”

The government pledged to scrap mixed-sex wards when it came to power in 1997. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said most trusts offered single-sex wards, but said more could be done. She conceded that patients’ experience did not seem to tally with reports on progress from hospitals. And she said she had asked Strategic Health Authority bosses to carry out checks.

However, she said it was not feasible to expect hospitals to provide single sex facilities in an medical admissions unit, where doctors assess emergency cases before deciding what action to take. She said that would increase the risk that a patient in dire need could be turned away, simply because they were the wrong sex.

“Most wards in most hospitals do now provide single-sex accommodation and single-sex bathrooms. But it is clearly not happening everywhere, and it cannot happen everywhere in those emergency situations, like medical assessment wards, because we cannot have a situation where you turn away a woman because you have only got a male bed left.”

Mrs Hewitt also accepted that the use of partitioned areas on mixed-sex wards was “not good enough” – but increased patient choice would give people the chance to vote with their feet. “We have eliminated most of the mixed-sex wards that used to exist, but there is still more to be done.”

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said: “Where mixed-sex wards do exist, they are often in older hospital buildings or to ensure that specialist care can be provided to groups of patients by hospital staff. However, hospitals go to great lengths to make sure that single-sex bays of four or five beds are provided within wards and that single-sex facilities, such as toilets and showers, are provided.”