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Dignity or death? Hospitals face challenge as fines imposed for mixed-sex wards

View profile for Judith Thomas-Whittingham
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From April 2011, NHS hospitals will be required to treat patients in single sex areas or face financial penalties.
The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: “It is vital that the NHS supports patients by protecting their dignity. The provision of single sex accommodation is essential for this.”
Figures released today show for the first time the number of patients treated on mixed-sex wards in different areas of the country.
North West hospitals reported the highest rate with 13 in 1,000 hospital stays involving treatment on a mixed-sex ward.
Senior officials are to decide whether reported cases are justified and fines of £250 per patient will be imposed on hospitals which don’t adhere to the policy. A shortage of beds or staff are not considered reasonable excuses. The only exceptions are in Accident and Emergency and in Intensive Care.
Sharing bathrooms and toilets is also unacceptable and men and women must have separate facilities which can be accessed without passing through an area used by the opposite sex.
However, as the government announce cuts in NHS spending, there are concerns about the implications this will have on the standard of treatment patients receive.
Katherine Murphy, Chief Executive Officer, Patients Association said: “In light of budget cuts, we are concerned that this may be accompanied by an increase in waiting times as patients wait for a bed on a single sex ward. Patients should not have to choose between death and dignity.”
There is a real risk that patients will be turned away or forced to wait if a bed on a ‘right sex’ ward is not available. Beds are likely to become blocked and routines admissions cancelled. Treatment in priority cases may also be delayed as patients cannot even wait in mixed sex areas to be assessed.
Refurbishment to create further single-sex accommodation will be an additional financial burden for the majority of hospitals which could prove costly and have a negative impact on budgets.
It is widely felt that eliminating mixed-sex wards should be treated as a priority. However, imposing a further financial burden on the already cash-strapped NHS could be a step too far.
By clinical negligence specialist, Katie Nolan