Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Mixed-sex wards to be penalised

Elderly patient being treated
Hospitals will not be paid for treatment of patients on mixed-sex wards

NHS Trusts in England which fail to scrap mixed-sex accommodation will be subject to penalties as part of a fresh bid to "all but" eradicate such wards.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said hospitals would only be paid for the treatment of a patient on a mixed-sex ward if it was clinically justified.

Some 15% of hospital trusts still use at least one open-plan mixed-sex ward.

But while there will be penalties, hospitals will at the same time receive cash to overhaul accommodation.

I want to make it clear today that mixed sex accommodation is no longer tolerable in the NHS
Alan Johnson
Health Secretary
A "privacy and dignity fund" of 100m is to be made available immediately to enable health authorities to make the necessary adjustments to their accommodation over the next six months.

But if patients are still being accommodated for no good reason on mixed-sex wards by the financial year 2010-2011, hospitals will be penalised, Mr Johnson said.

A government source said this meant hospitals would lose up to 2% of their income if they could not prove their mixed-sex accommodation was clinically justifiable.

Defining terms

Under the existing rules on mixed-sex accommodation, wards do not need to be single-sex but patients should be kept in bays divided at the very least by a fixed full-height partition.

Patients should also not be expected to walk past others of the opposite sex to go to washing or toilet facilities.

Intensive care and A&E wards are for practical reasons not included, and the Health Secretary stressed again in his address to NHS Chairs that there are "good, clinical reasons why men and women are cared for in the same accommodation".

But he added: "I want to make it clear today that mixed sex accommodation is no longer tolerable in the NHS, except when it is absolutely clinically necessary."

Labour pledged to end mixed-sex accommodation in both its 1997 and 2001 manifestos.

But after being granted a Freedom of Information request, the Conservatives revealed earlier this month that 15% of trusts were still just using curtains to divide patients of the opposite sex.

Just days ago, a health service memo also released by the Tories revealed Mr Johnson's frustration with the the failure to eradicate mixed-sex wards.

He was quoted as saying that "sane and rational arguments about why it can't be done no longer cut it with me, it's going to happen."

Michael Summer, of the Patients Association, said pledges to end mixed-sex accommodation had been made many times before and "nothing has happened".

"If it really does happen this time we would welcome it, but we just have to wait and see.

"It is one of the issues which really concerns us and one which really upsets patients - and particularly women."

Paul Cann, head of policy at Help the Aged, said 100m should be sufficient for an adequate overhaul.

"Single sex wards may be out of this price range but the goal of single sex accommodation may be possible. This money should be used to end the practice of unisex bathrooms and toilets.

"It should ensure that where wards must be shared, proper privacy can be maintained with more than a flimsy curtain as a divider. Members of the opposite sex should never be asked to share accommodation bays or be exposed before other patients."

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Alan Johnson's new plans fall far short of what the NHS needs.

"If Labour were serious about stopping patients being forced to share wards with the opposite sex they would copy our pledge to double the number of single rooms in the NHS.

"Our pledge would allow every patient going into hospital for planned care have a single room if they want one."

Nigel Edwards, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said penalties could put a stop to mixed-sex wards but their effect on other features of care should be monitored.

"Providing single sex accommodation across the board could well have an impact on other priorities we are working towards in the NHS like faster turn-around times in accident and emergency and waiting times for surgery.

"The most important consideration must always be patient safety and ensuring that the right treatment is carried out properly and promptly."

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