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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Q&A: Hospital Security
The rape of a 71-year-old woman in a London hospital has once again raised questions about security in hospitals.

BBC News Online examines how secure hospitals are and what steps are now being taken to protect staff and patients.

How secure are our hospitals?

Security in Britain's hospitals has long been a thorny problem.

Because of the sheer volume of patients and staff passing through the hospitals it is impossible to monitor every move.

Most hospitals have CCTV cameras and internal security in place and many have links with their local police stations.

But despite this crimes ranging from small scale theft to assaults on staff and patients regularly take place.

Casualty wards are always the most vulnerable as they are taking patients, some fuelled by drink or drugs, all hours of the day and night.

Another problem has been the mixed sex wards, such as the ward where this particular patient was treated.

This is a particularly problem for psychiatric patients.

A recent study by the mental health charity Mind showed that more than half of those they quizzed had been subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation.

One 83-year-old stroke victim in Scotland was assaulted on her mixed sex ward by an alcoholic who is said to have got past 13 nurses and doctors to climb into her bed.

She died just days after the attack.

The government plans to phase out mixed wards in 95% of health trusts by the end of 2002, but there have been concerns about the length of time this is taking.

How far should we go to protect our hospitals?

Hospital managers have a finite budget and unless they are given extra cash from the government any security measures must come from this limited pot.

This would undoubtedly have an impact on other services offered. A manager faced with improving security or paying for vital cancer drugs would almost always chose the drugs.

And if the improvements were paid from another fund what else could suffer?

The government and managers would need to weigh up whether the relatively few, but high profile attacks justified introducing fortress like conditions in all our hospitals and whether in fact they would work.

Baby snatches from maternity hospitals up and down the country have shown that even with the most stringent security it is virtually impossible to prevent something happening.

In 1995, the Department of Health published guidelines recommending that hospitals introduce CCTV cameras and identity badges for all staff on maternity wards and that access be controlled.

It was also suggested that all units adopt electronic tagging, but despite this babies have still been taken.

Some hospitals have guards at the entrance to their maternity wards monitoring who goes in and out of the wards.

Introducing this level of security onto ordinary wards would probably reduce crime levels, but is unlikely to deter the most determined or random attacker.

What was security like on this ward?

King's College Hospital, where the rape of the pensioner took place, said the attack had happened in a toilet inside a locked ward.

They said all their wards were secured by keys or had an entry card system and that they had 150 CCTV cameras covering extensive areas of the hospital.

And although the attack was not reported for three weeks it should still be possible to scan the CCTV footage to see whether they can get any clues to who attacked this vulnerable patient.

The hospital is liaising closely with the police and has said it will look closely at security measures, although there has been some suggestion that a fellow patient or member of staff could have carried out the attack.

Are the elderly particularly vulnerable?

The elderly and disabled, like young babies, are particularly vulnerable.

They often find it difficult to protect themselves and call for help and this makes them an easier target for attackers.

Two years ago the charity Action on Elder Abuse revealed that there were a shocking number of attacks on elderly people in both hospitals and residential homes.

They said this ranged from claims of people being mistreated, exploited or neglected.

The charity called on the government to set a deadline of 2005 for all workers with elderly people to be properly qualified, and wants the Treasury to foot the bill.

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Sophisticated detection devices aren't necessarily the answer"
The BBC's Sarah Sturdey tests hospital security
"I've walked straight through"
See also:

14 Jun 02 | England
20 Apr 01 | UK
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