Mixed-sex wards may mean faster treatment

Ever since I can remember, the separation of female patients from male patients on hospital wards has been written in ­tablets of stone.

No encroachment of one gender into hospital territory of the other has been tolerated.

Well, with people lying on trolleys in corridors waiting for bed space we may have to reconsider this practice and give mixed-sex wards a chance.

NHS consultant David Oliver, writing in The BMJ, quotes last year there were 13,700 mixed sex breaches, the highest level since 2010.

The word breach fascinates me. If needs must shouldn’t we put female patients on male wards and vice versa rather than leave them to languish in a draughty corridor? The NHS rule, however, states that all providers must eliminate mixed-sex accommodation.

Given the constant pressure on beds I’m astonished we’ve only had 13,700 official breaches. We have the fewest beds per 1,000 people among all ­European and OECD nations. ­Overnight occupancy approaches 100%. With acute demand at record levels, waiting time targets in A&E are shot. So with unrelenting pressure on hospital beds, surely we should see the totality as a “pool” to be used ­flexibly?

You have to ask yourself if you’d rather face delays for an operation, be stranded in an overcrowded A&E for hours, be denied access to specialist clinical areas, be moved repeatedly between wards, or be admitted to a mixed-sex ward or bay.

I’m inclined to think that most people would opt for admission and ­treatment sooner rather than face immeasurable delays with no end in view. I also believe patients would overcome feelings of squeamishness in exchange for receiving attention.

We’ve done it before. We’re all familiar with the Dunkirk spirit. As Oliver says: “Sometimes we simply have to make pragmatic decisions in the broader interest and then ­apologise for them.”

It’s not beyond the wit of man to keep distress and loss of privacy to a minimum on mixed-sex wards.

The chief nursing officer in 2007 suggested segregated toilets, use of bays, privacy screening, and better hospital clothing with more coverage.

Maybe at the busiest times it should become standard practice to ask patients and their relatives if they would consider entering a mixed-sex ward even though they may feel the presence of the opposite sex would be undignified and threatening.

This transparency and candour would go a long way to back up staff who often find they’re on the horns of a dilemma, trying to balance the need to give sick, vulnerable patients ­treatment and the distress they may feel in being on a mixed-sex ward.