Q&A: Mixed-sex wards

Hospital ward
Image caption Hospitals could be penalised for failing to provide single-sex accommodation

The government has pledged to eliminate mixed-sex hospital accommodation in England.

Q: What is mixed-sex accommodation?

Wards are expected to provide separate sleeping, bathroom and toilet facilities for male and female patients, but this is not happening in all hospitals.

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. Using a curtain as a divider will not suffice.

And patients should not be expected to walk past others of the opposite sex to get to washing or toilet facilities.

Q: Why are mixed-sex wards a problem?

While things like hospital cleanliness and staff attitudes tend to rank higher in people's concerns about hospital care, mixed-sex accommodation is still a big issue for some patients.

Sleeping in the same room or bay as people of the opposite sex is upsetting for some, creating anxiety and undue stress, often when they are at their most vulnerable.

Some people object for cultural or religious reasons.

Q: How common are they?

It is difficult to get an exact figure, but best estimates suggest around one in 10 wards in England are still mixed-sex.

A recent poll by the regulator the Care Quality Commission of patients admitted to a hospital in England for planned treatment found one in 10 reported having to share sleeping areas with someone from the opposite sex.

It appears to be a bigger issue in mental health wards. A CQC report for 2009 found over two-thirds of these patients in England and Wales were treated on mixed wards.

Q: Haven't we heard about this before?

Indeed, the issue is not new. Tony Blair first promised to get rid of mixed-sex wards in 1997.

But Labour eventually conceded it would be impossible to abolish all of them because of the disproportionate costs involved in converting some of the older Victorian hospitals.

It was suggested that the goal could be achieved by dividing these large Victorian wards into bays that treated either male or female patients.

In December 2009, the then health minister Ann Keen promised a £100m "privacy and dignity fund" would be available to enable health authorities to make the necessary changes to their accommodation.

Current health secretary Andrew Lansley is expected to make an announcement this week on what will be achieved under the coalition government.

Q: Will be hospitals be forced to do this?

The Labour government had said any hospitals that failed to abolish mixed-sex accommodation for no good reason by the financial year 2010-2011 would be fined.

According to a government source at the time, this could mean a hospital would lose up to 2% of its income.

More details of the coalition government's proposals are set to be announced shortly.

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