Ensuring men and women have single-sex hospital wards must now be a top priority for clinical, as well as administrative staff.
This is the implication of health secretary Alan Johnson’s announcement last week that hospitals have a little over a year to tackle mixed-sex accommodation or face penalties and increased censure.
While the hard-pressed construction industry may be thankful for extra work, physical alterations will not be the only or most important answer to dealing with the problem. More essential will be the day-to-day, hour-by-hour decisions of clinical, especially, nursing staff.
For nurses handling admissions it will now be imperative to decide whether men or women are admitted to a particular ward.
They will, for example, have to decide whether a ward or bay should be designated men or women-only for that day and when, and if, that status should be changed. They and their colleagues will then have to provide care within the context of that decision.
When a potential clash occurs - and no higher clinical priority prevails - it will often be nurses who have the responsibility to find a solution. Of course, many already spend time finding beds for patients. The difference now is that gender will be a crucial rather than guiding factor.
Leaving aside whether this rush to segregate has been inspired by the impending general election - an increase in single-sex accommodation will improve patient experience, particularly among frail, older people on general medical wards where the issue of gender mix is so often a problem.
Nurses will welcome the move - as they will welcome the£100m Privacy and Dignity Fund, providing it does not reduce investment in more important areas. But they should also take note of Dame Christine Beasley’s words that nurses must be vocal and active in ensuring the money is spent wisely.
Nurses have been the major driving force in reducing the prevalence of MRSA infections and will be at the forefront of the screening initiative which will seek to improve the situation further. Much of that success was achieved by a clear and consistent focus on the problem, ending mixed-sex accommodation in all but the most unusual circumstances will benefit from the same approach.
Alastair McLellan editor, Nursing Times