HOSPITALS across England face massive fines after it was revealed that up to half are still treating patients in mixed-sex accommodation just days before new government regulations come into force.
On 1 April, trusts will be fined £250 for every patient who is not treated in a single-sex environment. The way the fines will work means that even if just one woman is moved to a six-bed ward with five men, the trust will have to pay the fine six times over. And this week the Government released monthly compliance figures, which show 7,583 breaches during February 2011 in NHS-funded inpatient environments, illustrating the problem still facing increasingly cash-strapped trusts.
Patients should not suffer the indignity of being cared for in mixed-sex accommodation and I am determined to put an end to this practice where it is not clinically justified
The data covered 281 organisations, made up of all 75 acute non foundation trusts, 71 of the 92 acute foundation trusts, 77 community PCT and care trust providers, 44 mental health trusts and 14 independent sector providers.
Most of the breaches were, predictably reported in acute hospital trusts, with 47% reporting incidences of patients being treated in mixed-sex accommodation, accounting for 97% of all the breaches noted.
The worst offender was the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, with 859 incidences at Churchill Hospital, Horton General Hospital and the John Radcliffe Hospital. Next were East Cheshire NHS Trust, with 621 breaches at Macclesfield District General Hospital; and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, with 463 reported breaches at Wansbeck Hospital and North Tyneside General Hospital. Others singled out included Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust (227); Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust (307); Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust (362); St George's Healthcare NHS Trust (275); Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust (446); and Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust (458).
Overall, the rate of breaches is 5.7 per 1,000 overnight stays in a hospital, down from six in January and eight the previous month.
Commenting on the problems, Elaine Strachan-Hall, chief nurse at the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, said one of the problems was that the criteria had recently changed, leaving trusts struggling, despite a multi-million pound investment in estates made by the last government.
"The way in which breaches of single-sex accommodation are counted has changed recently, and day case areas, which were previously excluded from having to meet these rigorous standards, are now included," she added.
"Unfortunately, the trust has several such areas which it has not, as yet, managed to bring up to the standards of privacy and dignity that it strives for elsewhere. The majority of the breaches - 732 - are from these areas.
"The trust has been working on improving its recording of breaches in this area and, as a result, the numbers of breaches recorded has increased."
New guidance that states that clinical decision units should be included in the reporting has provided the trust with significant challenges
A spokesman at St George's Healthcare NHS Trust said it has also been hit by the additional demands, adding: "The trust has worked hard to eliminate mixed-sex accommodation at St George's Hospital and has made significant improvements over the last year. However, new guidance that states that clinical decision units should be included in the reporting has provided the trust with significant challenges.
"Patients go to these units as part of the A and E process, where they receive treatment before being transferred to a ward. The A and E department at St George's is the busiest in the country, meaning the unit has a high turnover of patients that we are now declaring as mixed-sex accommodation breaches.
"We have implemented an interim solution to make sure that the unit at St George's meets the new guidance while we work on a sustainable long-term plan."
Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has said of the issue: "Patients should not suffer the indignity of being cared for in mixed-sex accommodation and I am determined to put an end to this practice where it is not clinically justified. Where NHS trusts fail to meet this standard, we will let the public know that they have failed and we will strengthen the fines which may apply. As a result, patients and members of the public will be able to see which services continue to allow patients to suffer the indignity of mixed-sex accommodation."