The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is under mounting pressure over the continued existence of mixed-sex wards in the NHS, despite government assurances that they had been all but eradicated.
Ms Hewitt was forced to admit yesterday that the experiences of patients on mixed-sex wards did not tally with what trusts were telling her own department.
She has asked the Strategic Health Authorities, which oversee NHS trusts, to carry out checks and admitted that the use of partitioned areas to divide men and women on wards was "not good enough".
Women have been subjected to 300 sexual assaults while in mixed-sex mental health wards in the past three years alone, according to figures published earlier this month.
People across Britain have told The Independent how they or their relatives had been subjected to the indignity of sharing a ward with the opposite sex. They included a female rape victim who was put on a mixed-sex psychiatric ward just a month after being attacked and a teenage boy who was treated alongside vulnerable elderly women with just a curtain between them.
Ms Hewitt insisted that it was unfeasible to segregate the sexes on medical assessment units in A&E departments, but said the recent rush of complaints meant a crackdown on mixed wards was clearly necessary. "Every board of every hospital is going to want to look very carefully at whether they are getting rid of mixed-sex wards."
The issue has come to the fore again after The Independent's Janet Street-Porter told how her sister, Patricia Balsom, had been admitted to a mixed-sex ward even as she was dying from lung cancer.
The Patients Association said it had received 30 complaints in the past month from people who had been nursed on mixed-sex wards.
One patient described how she was often left naked and alone without the curtain being pulled properly around her bed half-way through being washed by nurses, while several people complained that their elderly parents had been left distressed by the experience of sharing a ward with men or women.
More embarrassment was heaped on Tony Blair, when it emerged that in 1996, as Leader of the Opposition, he had raised the debate over mixed-sex wards, saying: "Is it beyond the wit of the Government and health administrators to deal with this problem?"
Labour pledged to scrap mixed-sex wards when it came to power and the Department of Health claimed earlier this week that the majority of NHS trusts had segregated treatment areas.
Charities for the elderly said it was often older people who were most distressed by the experience of mixed wards. Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England, said: "The Government recently announced that dignity and respect was to be at the centre of all care for older people. They need to act on this commitment... by eliminating mixed sex wards so that patients feel their dignity is being respected."
Mental health patients are also among those who are subjected to mixed- sex wards when they are most vulnerable. Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, said: "It is shocking to see vulnerable patients, some of whom have previously been sexually abused, still being exposed to sexual harassment and even assault on mixed-sex wards... Every delay in implementing truly single-sex wards means patients are continuing to be put at risk of sexual harassment and assault."
Health service campaigners warned that the problem of mixed-sex wards will get worse in the next few months as pressure on the NHS increases.
Geoff Martin, campaigns director of the lobby group Health Emergency, said: "Patricia Hewitt has put pressure on the trusts to break even by March and that is simply adding to the lack of capacity within the health service."
Jennie: 'I felt scared and didn't eat'
Age 27. Treated psychiatric units, various for mental health problems following rape
"I was raped and about a month afterwards I was admitted to a psychiatric unit for the first time and put on a mixed-sex ward. Since then I have been in four other units and the majority have been mixed sex.
"I never feel safe. There is a lot of innuendo and aggression.
"On one unit I was playing Scrabble with another female patient when a male patient came in and flashed at us.
"I have been on a ward where men were walking around in pyjamas that didn't fit so their genitals were hanging out.
"Another time I was assured that I had been put on a women-only corridor but came out of my room to find a man lying naked on the bed in the room opposite - the nurses said the male corridor was full and there was nowhere else for him to go.
"These made me scared and one time I didn't eat or drink anything for four days because I didn't want to be in the dining room with the men.
"Female patients in these units are often survivors of male abuse and having to be on a mixed-sex ward can be very traumatic."
Winifred Ayres: 'She was next to male toilet'
Age 74. Treated West Herts, Hemel Hempstead for MRSA
"Winifred went into the West Herts with MRSA that she had contracted when she had been there previously.
"She was supposed to be in isolation but she was put in a room next to the toilet by a men's ward.
"Her door was left open all the time so men were constantly passing by, and we had to walk through a ward of very sick men to get to her.
"The man in the room next to her had dementia and was shouting out all the time; at one point the nurses just shut the door on him, which was awful.
"When she got a bit better she was put on a ward where the men and women were separated into bays but there was no real privacy or dignity and there were always men wandering around.
"My mother had only ever shared a bedroom with two men - my father and then my stepfather - and the experience for her on the wards and in the NHS was disgusting."
Gill Clayton (daughter), St Albans, Hertfordshire
James Wollacott: 'There was absolutely no privacy'
Age 19. Treated St Mary's, Paddington, London for knee surgery
"James had a knee injury when he was 19 and had surgery in St Mary's.
"He was put on an orthopaedic ward with elderly women, some of whom were very distressed - one was screaming all night.
"It seemed completely inappropriate and I am sure that some of the women didn't like being on a ward with a young man, although he actually started acting as a voice for some of the vulnerable patients who were being ignored by the nurses.
"They only had curtains to go around the beds so there was no privacy, even when very personal things were being carried out.
"It was like being in the dark ages."
Martin Wollacott (father), Hornchurch, Essex
Sara Neill: 'People are treated like cattle'
Age 62. Treated Kent & Sussex, Tunbridge Wells, Kent for stroke
"In 2001 I had to share a large ward with males and females of ages ranging from 16 years on. It must have been as humiliating and unpleasant for the young boy in the next bed to have a middle-aged woman beside him as it was for me.
"There was a very old lady whose naked buttocks protruded from the curtain around her bed as she was injected. Her cries were heard by us all, male and female alike.
"Last year I had a minor stroke. Remembering the mixed ward I'd been in before, I begged to be allowed to rest at home in the care of my husband and, fortunately, they let me go. It was the thought of having to go into a mixed-sex ward again which scared me - I was frightened and vulnerable. I couldn't bear the thought of suffering those indignities before strangers again.
"I was later given a lecture on my obduracy by a surgeon whose empathy with terrified patients verged on the autistic (and I do not use that term lightly). He was adamant he was going to operate and I would have to go on a mixed ward. He told me I had to do exactly what he said or he would not operate, and that he was the 'best surgeon in Kent'. I was hysterical after I had seen him.
"When I went in for a scan, I was then made to change in a public waiting room, which was full of outpatients - men and women. It was only the care of my husband that saved the public from seeing me naked. This was after I'd had a stroke - it caused me so much stress which I was told was very dangerous in my condition.
"A lot of damage has been done to me by the NHS and, as a result, I tend to ask questions. I get treated with disdain for asking them, but if I hadn't asked not to be on a mixed-sex ward I don't know what would have happened.
"I can't believe anyone ever thought mixed-sex wards could be sensible. No one would have dreamed of it in the 1970s when I was a nurse. It's quite incomprehensible. People need to be comfortable and feel looked after to heal - the misery caused by these conditions must cost the NHS a small fortune.
"People are treated like cattle."
Ivy Simmonds: 'The mixed ward was filthy'
Age 90. Treated Fairfield, Bury, Lancashire for MRSA
"Ivy was in hospital for her 90th birthday this year. The ward was a long open corridor with cubicles off it for men and women. It was an old peoples ward.
"The facilities we're shared and there wasn't much privacy. She spent 15 minutes on a commode in the mixed ward buzzing for a nurse to come and help her off as she can't walk more than a few yards.
"While she was on the mixed ward she contracted MRSA as well - the wards were filthy and they didn't dress her feet properly. They only had two cleaning staff in the hospital.
"When her feet started to blister as a result of the MRSA, the fluids just leaked all over the floor. They moved her to another ward and her legs started bleeding - they let them bleed all night and the blood pooled on the floor - they didn't clean it up until the next day.
"We took her out of hospital ourselves and had to sign a disclaimer saying it was against medical advice.
"He son-in law, Paul, who is 57, was put on mixed ward at Fairfield. He's severely disabled. People have no dignity on these wards whatsoever. While my husband was in hospital there was one man who would drop his trousers and urinate and defecate all over the ward in front of other patients - he didn't know what he was doing.
"Paul hated it, he didn't know where to look when women were undressing and was embarrassed to be seen in front of them in his underwear or with his top off."
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