I read a wonderful piece of research this week about the power of human touch. A study at the University of Colorado found that holding hands to comfort a loved one can actually reduce their pain. I’ve seen this so many times, when the husband or wife of a patient in distress reaches out and holds their hand and, as if by magic, in a few minutes they become settled.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: touch, after all, symbolises safety and love.The value of touch was first demonstrated by experiments on rhesus monkeys in the Fifties. Harry Harlow, a U.S. psychologist, found that given a choice between a surrogate ‘mother’ made of wire mesh that had a ready supply of milk, or a warm, soft mother but no food, monkeys chose the comfort over food. Those not given a soft surrogate mother froze in fear and cried, crouched down or sucked their thumbs. Harlow’s conclusion, that love and support are fundamental, has been supported by countless further scientific studies.
Personally I find this all incredibly comforting: it really speaks of the power of love. Simple way to end the horror of mixed wards.
There’s been much discussion about the manifesto pledges the Tories have had to abandon. Yet, there is another policy that, despite it appearing in their manifestos in 2010 and 2015, was quietly dropped from the last one — the promise to axe mixed sex wards.
Despite it being a big issue for many voters, Theresa May has apparently given up hope of achieving it. It’s something that’s dogged governments for years, but the latest figures make it clear why it has been dropped: despite all the political promises, the situation is getting worse, with 7,771 incidents of mixed sex wards being used in 2016/17, compared with 3,741 four years earlier. While hospitals can be fined £250 a day for breaches with mixed-sex wards, even financial penalties don’t seem to work. Research shows that individuals are at significantly increased risk of violence on a mixed ward — two thirds of all attacks occur on them. And it’s not just the risk to physical safety: mixed-sex wards are dehumanising and degrading.
The Mail has rightly long campaigned against them because many, many people find it embarrassing and undignified being cared for in this environment.This is a particular problem for those who are bedbound or have impaired mobility as they’re expected to perform all bodily functions in front of others. Imagine having to use a commode only separated from the person next to you by a thin curtain.
Then imagine you’re an elderly lady and the person next to you is a young man.While some might argue there are more important issues, the difficulty experienced in eradicating mixed sex wards is a symptom of a larger problem. The main reason mixed wards have proved so tricky to eradicate is not building layout, as is often claimed, but bed occupancy rates.In most hospitals in the UK, these are close to 100 per cent, compared with about 85 per cent in many European countries, because wards here are being closed.
When hospitals have to operate a ‘one in, one out’ policy because they are so full, of course there are going to be difficulties in allocating patients to beds on the basis of gender. I have frequently seen exasperated bed managers admit a patient of the opposite gender to a single-sex ward because it was the only bed available.High bed occupancy rates have also been shown to be the single biggest factor in infections such as MRSA. Financial penalties only penalise patients by taking money away from front-line care.So to enforce single-sex wards, those at the top of trusts and hospitals should have a performance-related pay structure, where they risk personal financial loss if policies aren’t adhered to. I suspect we’d then see managers suddenly taking a very active interest in what’s going wrong, and they would realise that closing wards