By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter
Criminal gangs are targeting hospitals, stealing expensive medical equipment to sell on the black market abroad, police and NHS officials believe.
Freeman Hospital is one of the places targeted by thieves
BBC News website has learned criminals have taken hundreds of thousands of pounds of diagnostic equipment in a spate of thefts in the past year.
York Hospital had £300,000 of endoscopy equipment, used for internal examinations, taken in a recent raid.
NHS security chiefs have alerted health trusts, asking them to take extra care.
HOSPITALS UNDER ATTACK
York Hospital - Thieves steal staff swipe card to get into hospital to take £300,000 of endoscopy equipment in December 2005
Leicester General Hospital - Endoscopy equipment taken in October. Trust said it was an outrage NHS was being targeted
Freeman Hospital (Newcastle) - Endoscopes again targeted, nearly £100,000 of equipment taken, as thieves go to the trouble of removing circuit boards from machines
West Middlesex University Hospital - Two portable ultrasound scanners, jointly worth £170,000, stolen from maternity wards last February
Addenbrooke's Hospital (Cambridge) - Cardio-vascular equipment worth £80,000 taken in May
University Hospital of North Durham - A £35,000 heart scanner, used to diagnose cardiac problems, taken in July raid police described as well planned
Hospitals have always been vulnerable to thefts of computers, drugs and cash because they are essentially public spaces.
But officials believe these cases differ as they are more organised and the scanners and endoscopy devices which have been taken are highly specialised equipment.
In some cases the thieves have had to dismantle the equipment to take it away.
Leicester General Hospital and Newcastle's Freeman Hospital have both had endoscopes stolen, while the University Hospital of North Durham had a £35,000 heart scanner taken.
Hospitals in Middlesex and Cambridge have also been targeted.
In two of the cases - York and Newcastle - thieves took a staff swipe card to get into the building, before taking several different items of endoscopy equipment.
Detective Sergeant Judith Smith, of North Yorkshire Police, who has been liaising with forces across the country about the raids, said she knew of about 10 cases where medical equipment has been taken.
She said the suspicion was that the equipment had been shipped abroad to be sold in eastern Europe and Africa.
She said: "There are quite a few similarities in the cases we have seen. It seems there are organised by groups or a group of individuals who know what they are doing.
"It is specialist equipment that has been taken and you would expect the thieves would have a market to sell them on to."
DS Smith added: "In York, just before Christmas, they knew what they needed as they went round and stole various pieces from the department."
York Hospital chief operating officer Mike Proctor said: "It was not like the normal thefts you see in hospitals, it was much more organised than that."
However, officials said the disruption to patient care had been kept to a minimum in most cases with equipment being borrowed from neighbouring hospitals or appointments transferred until replacements could be brought in.
The NHS Security Management Service, which is helping the police with the investigations, have responded by sending advice to NHS trusts this year on how to protect valuable equipment.
Paul Gilderdale, a security management specialist at the service, said: "It certainly seems like hospitals are being targeted by organised criminals. At the moment, we are trying to collate the information, but we are getting details of more and more thefts.
"Hospitals can be taking extra precautions like asking staff to keep a close eye on their ID cards and making sure people don't follow them into restricted areas. They should also review their CCTV security.
"This sort of crime is deplorable as it is depriving patients of vital medical equipment."