NHS chiefs to address issue of mixed-sex wards

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Criticism over the continued scandal of mixed-sex wards in the NHS is to be raised at a meeting tomorrow with health bosses by Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary.

Ms Hewitt is keen to take more action to reduce the complaints from women being forced to share wards with men. However, officials have warned her there is little more they can do without "spending millions".

The response from the 10 strategic health authorities, who had to report back yesterday as to whether hospital trusts are complying with an order to end mixed sex wards, was patchy. They were ordered to review their claims that 99 per cent of trusts had complied with the target of abolishing shared wards after a series of high-profile cases. They included the diary of Patricia Balsom, the sister of Janet Street-Porter, The Independent columnist, detailing the degrading conditions in a mixed sex ward where she was treated for cancer.

NHS chiefs claimed yesterday the majority of the complaints have arisen over observation wards and Accident and Emergency units, which were excluded from the single sex order.

The Yorkshire and Humber SHA admitted to having four mixed sex wards, but said the planned PFI development of the site would eradicate this. A spokesman said: "The Trust has done a lot of work to make sure that the wards are as dignified and private as possible for those using them. These consist of private bays, but patients do have to pass bays with patients of the other sex."

South Central SHA reported "the vast majority of organisations" in its region were "compliant", and in places where mixed sex wards are in operation work is underway to modernise facilities to ensure compliance. South West also said they were compliant, while North East reported a "high degree" of compliance but admitted they faced a challenge in making coronary care, intensive care and admissions units single sex.

The row was set to erupt again as the Health Secretary yesterday set the NHS a target of making a surplus of £250m by the end of 2007-08. It means wiping out deficits.

But the Patients Association last night challenged the official claims and said that Ms Hewitt should tell the NHS management board tomorrow to reorder their priorities to end mixed-sex wards by allowing them to spend more.

"We are getting complaints on our helpline from patients and they are not about observation wards or A and E wards," said an Association spokesman. "Women especially are afraid about their dignity."

David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, wrote to the SHAs asking them to check their figures and to explain why there were continued complaints. Ms Hewitt will ask chiefs tomorrow whether there is more that could be done.

Mr Nicholson was appointed in July and has been ordered to crack down on deficits by 2008. The unions are furious that staff hired to get waiting lists down are facing the sack.

There was disappointment too that the framework document fails to herald the scrapping of a financing system which critics claim penalises trusts in debt by cutting their future allocations.

Yesterday's framework plan included a new £50m budget to fight Clostridium difficile (C diff), which kills three times as many patients as MRSA.

Mr Nicholson also denied that some trusts were "technically bankrupt".

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