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Patient assaults rare: VIHA

Jan 04 2012

Sexual assaults against Vancouver Island hospital patients are rare, but there have been allegations prior to last month's assault on an 83-year-old woman with dementia, Vancouver Island Health Authority confirmed Tuesday.

"When they do occur, they are taken extremely seriously. Every report of sexual abuse is investigated thoroughly, promptly and without bias - and is also reported to the police," said VIHA spokeswoman Shannon Marshall.

VIHA is formalizing policies on mixed-gender rooms after the senior, taken to Cowichan District Hospital after a fall, was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow patient in a mixed-gender room shortly before Christmas.

A 48-year-old Cowichan Valley man, who was taken into custody at the hospital by RCMP Dec. 21, will face sexual assault charges in Duncan court Feb. 14.

It's believed to be the first case in five years where allegations of sexual assault by a patient have resulted in charges, Marshall said.

VIHA's new rules will require patients in two-bed rooms to be of the same gender. When it's necessary to mix genders in three and four-bed rooms, a minimum of two women will be assigned to each room.

Patients in mixed-gender rooms must be mentally competent and able to vocalize concerns. Those with known histories of violence, mental health issues or inappropriate sexual behaviours will not be placed in mixed rooms.

Health Minister Mike de Jong was not available for comment, but a ministry spokesman said a memo was immediately sent to all B.C. health authorities suggesting they follow VIHA's lead.

"This type of incident is unacceptable in hospitals," said spokesman Ryan Jabs.

"There are times when there are no alternatives to mixed-gender wards because we need to provide care, but there may be things they can do, like organize beds better."

Some are questioning why existing policies were not enforced previously.

A Saanich Peninsula man, who cannot be named as it would identify the victim, said he complained to VIHA two years ago after an incident involving his mother in a mixed-gender ward at Victoria General Hospital.

"She woke up to find an elderly man with his hand on her private area," he said. "I raised hell and it went nowhere. I was told [the man] had dementia and I should let it go."

His mother, who was then 88 years old and does not suffer from dementia, was afraid to go to sleep after the incident, he said.

NDP seniors and long-term care critic Katrine Conroy said it is horrifying that health authorities are formalizing policies only after such an incident, arguing mixed-gender rooms need to be scrapped.

"We've got to get back to rooms that don't have mixed sexes in them," said Conroy, questioning how hospital staff will determine if a patient has a history of violence.

Conroy said she has heard about other alleged assaults, adding some patients are simply aghast that they have to share a room with the opposite sex.

"One woman has been telling us about her mother. She's in her late 80s and the only person she'd ever been with overnight was her husband, and she was put in a hospital room with three men," she said.

Nurses have complained about the increasing use of mixed-gender rooms for six years, said Jo Taylor, regional chairwoman for the B.C. Nurses' Union Pacific Rim.

Lack of government funding and a shortage of extended-care beds mean rooms are overcrowded, she said.

"As a result of this overcrowding, patients have been cohorted together, no matter what their gender or, sometimes, no matter what their illness," Taylor said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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