Monday, November 27, 2006

Filth and shame in an NHS hospital

In Briatain, it's not just the Psychs, although I too easily suspect they are leading the pack. As seen in this editorial on mixed sex hospital wards in Britain.

Twenty-four hours to save the NHS! I wonder how often that promise comes back to haunt Tony Blair 10 years later. Week after week reliable reports and the government’s own figures tell a disgraceful story of incompetence, debt, misery and filth in the National Health Service. That story is supported, week after week, by heart-rending personal accounts of horrors on the wards.

The broken new Labour promise that caught most public attention last week was the failure to abolish mixed-sex wards. Janet Street-Porter, the ferocious media personality, wrote about the misery of her sister when dying of cancer in a mixed-sex NHS ward. Plenty of other people have tried to draw attention to this disgrace and Baroness Knight, the Conservative peer, has been campaigning about it for years but — such is the spirit of the times — it takes a loud-mouth celebrity to get public attention.

The same thing happened when Lord Winston made a fuss about the dreadful treatment that his elderly mother received in hospital. Only then did the government stop denying that there was anything wrong.

Street-Porter published extracts last week of the diary of Patricia Balsom, her dying sister. They were horrifying. Among the miseries she endured was lying neglected in a mixed ward, where she was woken more than once to see a naked male patient masturbating opposite her bed. Her shocking stories prompted a flood of others.

The late Eileen Fahey, for instance, dying of cancer, was put onto a mixed geriatric ward where confused people wandered about without supervision. One man with dementia regularly masturbated at the nurses’ station and tried to get into women patients’ beds; he was a threat to them all but staff took no notice, according to her daughter Maureen. Other patients have to give answers to intimate questions in the hearing of other patients. One deaf old man was repeatedly asked when he last had an erection, until tears ran down his cheeks.

A former midwife described eloquently on Radio 4 the indignities of being in a 24-bed mixed-sex ward, stripped of all dignity and intimidated. Bedlam was the word she used, and it applies even more accurately to the secure psychiatric mixed ward in London endured by Susan Craig last year, after a breakdown. She suffered regular sexual harassment, with mentally ill men groping her and exposing themselves. The nurses disbelieved her and told her husband she was “flaunting herself”.

If so (I don’t believe them), their job was to protect a patient from her own folly. Instead they chose, in modern cant, to blame the victim.

Sexual harassment is only a small part of the problem. Many people, both men and women, feel their modesty is violated by such closeness to random members of the opposite sex, even when they are not threatened.

Patients lie naked, half washed and forgotten, their sick and ageing flesh exposed to everyone, while nurses rush elsewhere. It is commonplace to have to walk to filthy mixed lavatories with gowns wide open at the back. At a time of sickness and anxiety many people are profoundly embarrassed to be surrounded by a clutter of bed pans, colostomy bags, nakedness, cries of pain and sweat, blood and tears — their own and other people’s.

All this is much worse, for many, when they are surrounded by members of the opposite sex; shame and anxiety are not the best bedfellows of hope and healing.

Much has been written about the rape of modesty and the death of shame. However, it is still true in this weary country that most men and women prefer to perform private bodily functions alone if possible, and among their own sex only, if not. That’s why we have separate public lavatories and separate changing rooms in shops and clubs and pubs. That’s why people put up towels on the beach. That’s why women give birth in female wards, not in mixed wards or not — I hope — so far.

Admittedly there are some who believe that mixed wards are not a problem, but our prime minister is not one. “Is it really beyond the collective wits of the government and health administrators to deal with the problem?” he demanded in 1996, flying high on vectors of dizzying youthful indignation as leader of the opposition. “It’s not just a question of money,” he went on. “It’s a question of political will.” Well, he said it and he promised to end mixed-sex wards by 2002

What we have come to expect of new Labour promises, following failure, changing the goalposts, more failure and exposure, is denial. Sure enough Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was sent onto the Today programme in denial mode last week.

Although the Healthcare Commission watchdog found that on average 22% of patients have to stay in mixed-sex wards, rising to 60% in some hospitals, Hewitt’s officials at the Department of Health say the government has achieved its target of abolishing mixed-sex wards, with 99% of trusts providing single-sex accommodation.

It is not difficult to spot the problem with that claim. It is not the same as saying 99% of patients get single-sex accommodation; it may be “provided” for very few. There has been the usual goalpost shifting: hospitals can claim they are providing single-sex accommodation by putting screens between beds in mixed-sex wards. Brilliant.

Hewitt admits there was a problem of perception; she even admitted that there was a “clear gap” between patients’ experiences and figures provided by hospital trusts to the Department of Health. One does tend to have a problem of perception, I find, if one is being misled.

My feeling is that mixed-sex wards are not the worst of NHS hospitals’ problems, although they demonstrate them. They demonstrate the incompetence and deviousness of hospital management in general, and they also show something worse. In all the stories I’ve come across what stands out is the ignorance, incompetence, laziness and heartlessness of all too many nurses, who are allowed to neglect and insult their patients without supervision and without sanction — in single-sex wards just as much as mixed.

Blair did not just promise to abolish mixed-sex wards, he also promised to save the entire NHS. He believes in divine judgment; I wonder how he will answer.

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