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Psychiatric staffing levels ‘unsafe’

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Nurse shortages and overcrowding in acute psychiatric units is having a ‘deleterious’ effect on the care of detained patients, a watchdog warned last week.

The Mental Health Act Commission drew comparisons between conditions in today’s units and those observed by the Lunacy Commission in 1815.

‘Overcrowding is, amazingly, once again a key concern of staff and patients that we encounter on visits, as is the shortage of staff in many hospitals,’ said MHAC chairperson Lord Patel
of Bradford.

‘Inadequate numbers of qualified and experienced nursing staff in many wards no doubt continue to limit the potential for relational security to be preferred over more physical barriers to patients’ freedom,’ he said in the commission’s penultimate report before it is merged with the Healthcare Commission and the Commission for Social Care Inspection in 2009.

The report included damning examples of how patients have been adversely affected, such as the case of a dying man nursed in a dining room while other patients ate their lunch because of a lack of staff to nurse him appropriately.

In another incident, commission inspectors witnessed three new acute wards with 135% bed occupancy. Patients were sleeping in day rooms with no curtains and staff were ‘run off their feet’.

Overall, the commission said it had observed staffing levels that it considered to be unsafe, along with high absence levels and high proportions of agency staff.

‘Nursing staff frequently complain of being too busy to develop “therapeutic rapport” with patients,’ the report added.

RCN mental health adviser Ian Hulatt said: ‘It’s disappointing to note that, despite record levels of investment, we still have so far to go.’

Peter Atkinson, vice chairperson of Unison’s national nursing committee, told NT: ‘There are still very serious concerns that the demands of paperwork and administrative tasks are so great that they
take nurses away from the clinical coalface.’

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