NHS austerity may prescribe a longer life for mixed sex wards

The scene is a familiar one in hospitals up and down the country.

With beds a scare resource and targets to bring down waiting lists ever pressing, those in charge of wards have no option but to adopt a make do and mend mentality. For those on geriatric wards, where bed space is at a premium, the problem is most acute.

An elderly female patient can quite easily find herself in a predominantly male ward and while curtains offer a little privacy, everyone involved admits it is not only far from ideal, but a world away from the Dignity in Care philosophy which was supposed to change the way society's most vulnerable are treated in their hour of need.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It's a problem which has dogged the NHS for years, but amid a decade of broken promises if there was a feeling of dj vu in Britain's hospitals yesterday it would have been understandable.

It was Labour who first called for an end to the practice of mixed sex wards back in 1997. The pledge was reiterated in

2001 and 2006. While Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has now declared that shared wards in all but accident and emergency and intensive care units will become a thing of the past by the end of the year, no one is holding their breath.

"Patients want to minimise the inevitable difficulty of having to discuss personal conditions with strangers," said a spokesman for the Royal College of Nursing. "They want to be able to protect their privacy and maintain their modesty. However, in a survey covering 82 different aspects of patient care, single sex wards came 62nd overall.

"It's not to say it's not important. It is, but being treated with respect and having privacy when being examined or discussing treatment tends to have higher priority. This doesn't mean we should reign back efforts to eliminate mixed-sex wards, far from it, but we do need to understand the complexity of factors at work."

Others have also pointed out the design of older hospitals means it's much more difficult to achieve entirely single-sex wards, yet a look at other parts of the UK show it is possible.

Northern Ireland says it is working to abolish mixed-sex accommodation and has pledge that all new hospitals built will have this aim in mind. In Scotland, mixed-sex wards were abolished in 2005. In Wales, 95 per cent of all hospital accommodation is in single sex wards or room and this is expected to reach 100 per cent by March next year.

However, as the new Government ushers in its age of austerity, the NHS is unlikely to be protected from swingeing cuts. In an era where every penny will have to be accounted for and across the board departmental cuts, single sex wards may be one luxury few hospitals can ultimately afford.

"Of course, we would welcome an end to mixed sex wards – it is an unjust and unfair way to treat our most vulnerable, especially the elderly," says Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association. "Each incoming Secretary of State has made exactly this same pledge since 1997 and with the NHS facing financial restrictions as part of the Government's austerity drive, we remain sceptical that this rhetoric will become reality.

"We are also concerned about the proposed timeline for ending mixed sex wards by the end of 2010. In light of budget cuts, there are potentially huge implications for patients, not least an increase in waiting times as they wait for a bed on a single sex ward. Patients should not have to choose between death and dignity.

"The Department of Health produced a report into the issue of mixed sex wards in 2007. It stated that single-sex accommodation is a visible affirmation of the NHS's commitment to patient dignity and should be the norm in all elective care wards.

"We do not see how adding another layer of bureaucracy and fining NHS trusts which fail to meet the targets is going to help."