Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


Toilet privacy in hospital


An audit that collected the views of patients and nursing staff highlighted key points to improve patients’ privacy and dignity when they were using the toilet in hospital


Nursing Times Learning

Are you interested in continence care? Boost your knowledge by taking one of our online learning units now:

In this article..

  • How issues around using the toilet can affect patients’ dignity
  • Carrying out an audit to gather views on the issue
  • Actions taken to improve privacy and dignity


Karen Logan is nurse consultant and head of continence service, Llanfrechfa Grange Hospital, Cwmbran, Torfaen.


Logan K (2012) Toilet privacy in hospital. Nursing Times; 108: 5, 12-13.
Good practice in toilet management and continence promotion can help hospital patients to maintain their dignity.
This article reports on an audit that highlighted the issues important to patients and nurses in terms of improving privacy and dignity for inpatients using the toilet.
Keywords: Continence/Toilet use/Privacy/Dignity

5 key points

  1. Dignity is about small things that are extremely important
  2. Concern is growing that inpatients’ expectations are not being met in terms of dignity, particularly for older people
  3. Without sensitive support, continence care can become undignified and impersonal
  4. Ensuring patients have privacy and dignity when using the toilet is crucial
  5. Privacy pegs and signs can help give patients more dignity

Dignity is a complex concept, with a value and philosophy that is central to nursing. In its “Dignity: at the heart of everything we do” campaign, the RCN said dignity should be central to every task nurses are involved in.

Dignity is often about small things that are extremely important, such as maintaining hygiene and personal appearance, having access to the toilet, being offered choices and being involved in decisions.

However, there is mounting concern that hospital patients’ expectations are not being met in relation to dignity, particularly among older people.

Recent media coverage and Care Quality Commission and government reports continue to suggest the NHS is failing patients in this area.

Using the toilet is a private activity and patients are likely to be embarrassed if other people can see or hear them while doing this. An inadequate response to the toilet needs of those who are confined to bed, including poor continence management on wards, needs to be addressed. Without sensitive support, continence care can become undignified and impersonal (Averall, 2010). The Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust Inquiry (2010) report made numerous references to failings in continence care and toilet use management. The Royal College of Physicians’ (2010) audit highlighted the need for improvements in continence care and privacy when using the toilet.

This audit and various government reports prompted a local internal audit that reviewed the processes at an NHS health board in South Wales to ensure patients were treated with dignity and respect, particularly in terms of toilet issues.


The audit aimed to give us information that would enable us to:

  • Improve care for people needing help with using the toilet or who had special continence needs;
  • Improve the ward environment to meet patients’ privacy and dignity needs in relation to personal care and to ensure they can use the toilet in private;
  • Enable ward nurses to ensure that people’s privacy and dignity is respected while in hospital.


Questionnaires were designed to obtain the views of patients and nursing staff. Permission to conduct the audit and visit wards across different hospitals in the board was sought from the nurse director, and lead divisional nurses were informed that ward visits would be taking place during November and December 2010.

Random wards and departments from different specialties within acute and community hospitals were visited, including urology, stroke and elderly care/rehabilitation areas. Informal interviews were held with patients and nursing staff. Further questionnaires were distributed and left with other nursing staff; these were subsequently posted to the audit department.


Information was collated from mixed wards in two large district general hospitals (DGHs) and from three smaller community hospitals. In total, the views of 78 patients and 79 nursing staff were collected.

Some questionnaires were returned with the ward details and staff grades omitted, which made data analysis and feedback to wards more difficult.

Table 1 shows the patient questionnaire results and Table 2 shows the nursing staff results.

Below is a small selection of comments from patients and staff in each setting.

General remarks from patients in DGH 1:

  • Cannot reach call bell, cord too short;
  • Toilet not big enough to close the door when using a wheelchair.

Comments from nursing staff in DGH 1:

  • Refurbished female toilets is a must; mornings are very busy and extremely difficult for patients and staff to accommodate all patients in such a small area;
  • Bed curtains are very poor and difficult to close.

General remarks from patients in DGH 2:

  • Have gone to use the toilet and found a lady sitting on the toilet;
  • No designated single-sex toilets. Shared washing facilities.

Comments from nursing staff in DGH 2:

  • Do not disturb peg/signs for curtains in bay please;
  • Need designated room to see patients who do not have a bed to discuss private issues.

General remarks from older patients in three community hospitals:

  • Sometimes you have to wait for the commode;
  • Had to wait 30 minutes for commode, staff are really busy.

Comments from nursing staff in community hospitals:

  • [Need] privacy pegs and signs for no entry;
  • [Need] more soap and towels for handwashing.

Action after the audit

The audit results were discussed with the nurse director and presented to the health board’s patient quality and safety committee. The health board has since called for a zero-tolerance approach to poor continence care across the organisation.

An audit action plan and recommendations for improvement at ward level were discussed. Collaboration with divisional lead nurses is planned to implement the agreed actions, develop recommendations and support and monitor ward progress, and a re-audit is planned for 2012.

Key points from the audit

The audit revealed important points that nurses need to consider on the importance of ensuring good practice in toilet use.

Most issues were around the need to improve the environment in terms of better privacy for patients, not only in relation to personal care and toilet use but also when discussing confidential information.

The organisational nursing metrics process (Foulkes, 2011) and “transforming care at the bedside” (Unruh et al, 2011) will help to ensure a more rapid response to call bells. Regularly offering to take patients to the toilet avoids the use of commodes at the bedside where possible.
infection control nurses have been asked to address the problem of failure to offer soap and water for handwashing to patients who have used the toilet at the bedside.

To improve privacy and dignity in wards, the continence service has obtained sponsorship and funding to supply privacy pegs and signs for use on all bed curtains, indicating when personal care should not be disturbed. The audit showed use of these in many areas was limited and nurses asked for more to help maintain privacy. The new pegs and signs will include tips for improving toilet use and promoting continence to remind nurses of best practice.


This audit aimed to improve privacy and dignity in toilet use and promote continence and good practice in ward areas.

It has gone a long way to meet these objectives.

It is also supported by a rolling programme of continence education and, supported by the corporate nursing team, it has helped to drive a culture change towards improved dignity in continence care.

Keep up to date

Do you want to be kept informed of new articles like this or on a wide range of specialist subjects? If you register with you can sign up for regular newsletters on the subjects that interest you, so you don’t miss the news and practice information that’s relevant to you. It’s quick and easy – just click here.


Related files

Readers' comments (4)

  • A friend of mine was recently in hospital after breaking her ankle and was absolutely mortified to find that the Nurses on the ward were 'too busy' to help her to the bathroom so she could use the toilet and was forced her to use a commode by the bedside.

    She is just 21 years old and had she been given her crutches and some support she could have walked (well hopped) to the toilet, or they could have wheeled her to the bathroom on a commode but they didn't. When she was in bed, she wanted to get out to use the commode in the bathroom but they told her this was impossible as she was already in bed (she was not on bed rest, she just needed support and help to get out of bed) and was given a bed pan, she almost cried.

    I think that we forget how humiliating and embarassing it must feel for someone, young or old, to have to use a bed pan, or wee behind a curtain when you know that there are 5 other people on the other side of the curtain who all know what you are doing.

    Privacy and dignity is massively important and it should definitely be ensured that all patients are given all the support, help and privacy that they need, especially when doing something so private as going to the toilet, I mean, as an adult, no one has EVER seen me go to the toilet apart from when my partner walked in on me once, and I threw a slipper at him to make him leave! I can't imagine weeing in a room full of people and feeling particularly comfortable about it, it is not dignified at all.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • apart from the lack of dignity for each individual, which must at all costs be respected, serious physical and psychological complications including considerable stress and distress can arise from people withholding and postponing their basic needs. surely these complications do not need spelling out.


    on a lighter side in response to the plight of the patient described in the comment above, and at the risk of repeating a well-worn old joke, I will retell it for those who may not have heard it.

    our Director of the School of Nursing, in a lecture on communications told us how poor communications can be misinterpreted and the responsibility lies with the communicator to get her message across clearly and not with those who have misunderstood it.

    Sister told a student nurse to give a commode to a patient on strict bed rest. later when she passed the bed she was rather surprised to see the curtains drawn and the patient's head peeking out over the top of them!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Anonymous | 27-Jan-2012 2:21 pm
    I can't understand anybody who has trained and registered as a nurse being so insensitive and uncaring.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • A lack of staff available to take patients to the toilet can lead to long waits for the patients. In my experience, it has taken up to 45 minutes to assist a patient in toileting needs, especially if they are obese and immobile and need assistance of 2 staff.

    Post meal time seems to be particularly busy, as everyone reaches for the buzzers at once. Quite often staff are busy feeding patients or on lunch/tea break themselves and cannot assist immediately.

    Staff breaks need to be scheduled so that patients aren't left waiting for one or two members of staff to assist them at busy times.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.