The United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (UKCC), is now dealing with more complaints against staff in private homes than against psychiatric nurses, previously the area of highest concern.
Tariq Hussain, assistant registrar for professional conduct, said the UKCC was concerned about the rise in reported cases, and at the type of cases.
'We are seeing the sort of abuse and poor practice that was common in large institutions of the Seventies. If this sort of behaviour was discovered in a hospital it would lead to an inquiry. But if it is discovered in different small nursing homes it tends not to create the amount of concern nationally that it should do.'
There has been a massive growth in the number of private nursing homes in the last decade which now look after 250,000 long-stay patients, most of whom would previously have been in NHS hospitals.
Some of the cases heard by UKCC in the last few months give an indication of the problem.
They include two nurses who were struck off for verbally abusing residents; keeping them on reducing diets unnecessarily; refusing them bedtime drinks; forcing patients to walk when they were in pain rather than use a wheelchair; forcing a terminally ill patient to wash her hair every day; hitting a patient; and giving salt water to a woman who asked for paracetamol.
Other cases include numerous examples of nurses giving drugs to patients which they had not been prescribed; forcing patients to eat by pulling their hair back so their mouths opened or by pinching their noses; shouting abuse at patients, and slapping them. One nurse was struck off for falsely claiming to be a registered general nurse when he failed the RGN course four times.
The proportion of disciplinary hearings against nurses in private homes rose to 26 per cent of all cases heard in the first six months of the current year (1 April to 30 September). The number of formal disciplinary hearings a year against private home nurses are relatively small - 27 cases in 1992-93, out of a total of 124 (21.77 per cent). But the council estimates it currently deals with over 40 complaints about nurses in private homes each month, of which only a handful go to a full disciplinary hearing.
The increase could be due to more people being willing to complain, Mr Hussain said. But he warned that the homes might be seen as a soft touch for nurses with a dubious employment record. 'While some homes are run well, a lot of people have gone into it who have no experience of management. There is strong evidence of poor recruitment procedures, such as references not being taken up.'
Robert Stewart, chairman of the Registered Nursing Homes Association, which represents private nursing home owners, said he was concerned about any complaints. 'Before any conclusion can be made, however, the figure of 25 per cent has to be looked at in relation to the ever increasing proportion of trained nurses employed in the private nursing home sector.'Reuse content