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Tuesday, 20 June, 2000, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Gibraltarians attack 'filthy' NHS hospital
St Mary's Hospital
The patients' association claims conditions are poor
By BBC News Online's Martin Hutchinson

A leading London hospital is at the centre of a row after dozens of Gibraltarians sent there for treatment complained about poor hygeine standards.

Many claimed that this led to them picking up dangerous infections after operations.

Their accusations could reopen the debate over falling standards of hospital hygeine in the NHS.

There are no facilities for heart operations or cancer treatment in Gibraltar, so its health authority flies most of them to St Mary's Hospital in London.

However, following dozens of complaints from patients and relatives about "squalid" conditions on the wards of the hospital, authorities sent a representative to investigate last week.

Hospital bosses insist that they have no problems with hygiene and that the visiting representative was "delighted" with what he saw.

Lionel Perez, President of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Support Group in Gibraltar, said that he knew of 16 patients in the last six months who had developed infections following surgery or other procedures at St Mary's.

These infections included MRSA, the so-called "superbug" which is resistant to many modern antibiotics.

Many more patients or relatives, he said, had complained about the cleanliness of the wards.

Patients are flown out for major operations
He told BBC News Online: "The people I have spoken to say that the conditions on the wards are unbelievable.

"Our members are increasingly coming back with infections they have contracted at the hospital.

"Nobody has any complaints about the way the operations are being carried out - it's when they go to the general wards that everything goes wrong."

He listed some of the complaints he had received from furious former patients and their relatives.

They included:

  • Splashes of blood, urine and other body fluids left on the ward floors for days on end, despite complaints
  • Used sanitary towels lying in the toilets of mixed wards - not removed despite objections
  • Patients seeing a mouse running around the wards - with no apparent efforts at pest control

The Gibraltar Health Authority sends approximately 600 patients a year for treatment in NHS hospitals, at a cost of 2.6m.

The people I have spoken to say that the conditions on the wards are unbelievable

Lionel Perez, cardiac group
Although the cash comes from outside the health service, when the Gibraltarians arrive, they are treated the same as an ordinary NHS patient.

A spokesman for the Gibraltar government said that a health authority representative had visited St Mary's in response to the complaints about hygiene conditions there.

He said: "People have complained to the health authority here that they were exposed to unhygienic conditions at St Mary's, and have linked that to the infections.

"We had some people over to St Mary's to explain this to them. St Mary's are not ignoring the complaints."

Mr Julian Nettel, the Chief Executive of St Mary's, said he was "surprised and very, very concerned" to learn of the allegations.

He said: "The allegations made about St Mary's are very worrying and we wish to set the record straight immediately.

"To date, the hospital has not received any complaints about patient care from the President of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Support Group in Gibraltar.

"Only last week, we were visited by the Gibraltar Health Minister, who appeared to be very pleased with the quality of care and the standards of hygiene at St Mary's, so these allegations are very disturbing indeed."

He said the hospital employed some of the "best practice" measures to try to prevent infections, such as infection control teams and a committee.

He promised that the allegations would be investigated by them if a formal complaint was received.

Hospital-acquired infections are thought to cost the NHS approximately 1bn a year, according to research.

The health minister has come to investigate, and he's extremely happy

St Mary's spokesman
A spokesman for the Department of Health said that the government was keen for statistics relating to hygiene to be both collected, and possibly published in future.

Health Minister John Denham announced this month that statistics for the number of infections acquired in hospital would definitely be published.

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