Ministers have admitted they are failing to meet a pledge to abolish mixed-sex wards, claiming single-sex bays will suffice. Richard Staines gauges reaction from the frontline
More than 10 years ago Labour was elected on the back of promises to invest in the NHS and eradicate mixed-sex wards.
When in opposition, Tony Blair famously asked if it was beyond the ‘collective wit’ of the government to deal with mixed-sex wards and the New Labour manifesto of 2001 said ‘mixed-sex wards will be abolished’.
Unfortunately, it appears it has proved to be a problem too far for the Labour administration.
In December the Department of Health stepped back from its earlier pledges when it released guidance permitting single-sex bays within mixed wards.
And last week junior health minister Lord Darzi told MPs that the complete phasing out of mixed-sex wards was an ‘aspiration that cannot be met’.
He argued it was acceptable for wards to contain single-sex bays, with single-sex toilets – even though the wards were mixed.
‘Our guidance requires the provision of single-sex accommodation, not wards,’ he said in the House of Lords. ‘This may mean single rooms or single-sex bays within a mixed ward, as well as single-sex wards.’
A hastily-drawn up DH statement backed Lord Darzi. ‘The aim of the NHS is to reduce mixed-sex accommodation and ensure privacy and dignity for all patients. But sometimes the need to treat and admit will take priority over complete segregation,’ a spokesperson said.
A report published in May 2007 by the chief nursing officer for England, Chris Beasley, suggested at least 15% of trusts still had mixed-sex wards. Lord Darzi estimated last week that 10% of these were mixed wards with single-sex bays and the remaining 5% were fully mixed.
His comments sparked criticism from patients’ groups, accusing him of ‘throwing in the towel’ on the issue. Nurses and their unions have also spoken of their discomfort about patients being treated in mixed-sex wards.
They repeated concerns that mixed-sex wards deprived patients of their dignity – the maintaining of which is supposedly a government priority.
Ann Price, a Bristol community nurse, said: ‘I have met women who have come back from gynaecological operations and they have been placed on mixed wards – you are not comfortable, it is degrading and demoralising.’
RCN general secretary Peter Carter said: ‘We disagree with [Lord Darzi’s view]. Coming into hospital is stressful and if you are in a four- or six-bed dorm there is a sense of embarrassment and you only compound it if those people are of the opposite sex.
‘We want to keep the pressure on the government and we want them to honour their election pledge,’ he said.
David Harding-Price, former chairperson of the RCN’s mental health forum, went further and said mixed-sex mental health wards put patients at risk.
‘People with mental health problems often become disinhibited,’ he said. ‘If you have a predatory male, or vice versa, it may put people at risk.’
So why has the government failed to do what it so publicly set out to 11 years ago?
Lord Darzi claimed the only way to achieve the aim of single-sex wards was to ‘build the whole of the NHS into single rooms’.
But Ann Seeds, a clinical ward manager at Hinchingbrooke Healthcare NHS Trust in Huntingdonshire, argued that there was a far simpler solution – investment in extra bed capacity.
‘The government has reduced capacity that trusts are working with, so it is shooting itself in the foot,’ she said.
For the time being fully single-sex wards remain an aspiration.
‘If patients are really sick they don’t care if they are on a mixed ward or not,’ said Ms Seeds.