Fine threat over mixed sex wards

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The Health Secretary has set NHS hospitals a deadline to "virtually eliminate" mixed-sex wards by next year or face heavy financial penalties.

Announcing the latest drive to end the indignity and embarrassment suffered by thousands of patients cared for on wards shared with the opposite sex, Alan Johnson said yesterday that such accommodation was "totally incompatible" with the NHS's focus on quality, dignity and respect. Mr Johnson announced a £100m ring-fenced Privacy and Dignity Fund to help NHS trusts.

However, the NHS faces a formidable task. A Healthcare Commission survey last May found that one in four patients said they had to share a room or bay with patients of the opposite sex when first admitted, although that fell to one in 10 for those whose admission had been planned.

The announcement is the latest in a series of pledges made (and broken) by Labour over more than a decade. It was greeted warmly by most medical organisations but the NHS Confederation warned it "could well have an impact on other priorities we are working towards like faster turn around times in accident and emergency and waiting times for surgery".

Speaking at a conference in central London, Mr Johnson said: "I want to make it clear that mixed-sex accommodation is no longer tolerable in the NHS, except when it is absolutely clinically necessary.

"From 2010/11 hospitals who fail in their duty to protect patients' privacy by allowing mixed-sex accommodation where it is not clinically necessary will be financially penalised.

"We will not pay for care that has taken place in mixed-sex accommodation unless it can be clinically justified."

Mr Johnson announced a £100 million ringfenced Privacy and Dignity Fund to help NHS trusts. The move comes after a leaked memo last week revealed that the Government was "rattled" over its failure to keep promises, made as far back as 1997, to scrap mixed-sex accommodation.

Despite Government pledges in the 1997 and 2001 election manifestos, the problem remains. A target set in 2000 to eliminate mixed sex wards by the end of 2002 was missed and the deadline extended to 2004.

By 2006, the Department of Health was claiming 99 per cent of patients were treated in single sex "accommodation", a subtle change from its earlier pledge to provide single sex "wards". It emerged that some trusts had designated bays within wards as single sex, even when they were only separated by a curtain. An inquiry by the department in May 2007 revealed one in five trusts was still resorting to mixed sex accommodation.

The department has since strengthened its definition of single sex accommodation by outlawing the use of curtains dividers and insisting that bays should be split with "full height, rigid, fixed partitions". Full height, however, does not necessarily mean fixed to the ceiling but high enough to "ensure that patients perceive they are in a separate room".

Yesterday's announcement means that hospitals will be required from 2010-11 to segregate the sexes by giving patients "separate sleeping areas (eg single-sex bays) and separate toilets and bathrooms that they can reach without having to pass through (or close to) opposite sex areas".

The only exceptions will be patients admitted to Accident and Emergency Departments and some emergency medical admission wards, where mixing the sexes "can be clinically justified" – because an emergency admission cannot be postponed or refused.

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients Association, said: "Patients will remember the promises made today as the latest entries on a long list and they will know who to hold to account should they be let down again."

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