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More families complain of assaults in hospitals

Jan 06 2012

Sexual assaults and invasions of privacy are not uncommon in co-ed hospital rooms on Vancouver Island, according to families of former patients.

After the Times Colonist reported about a severe sexual assault on an 83-year-old woman at Cowichan District Hospital shortly before Christmas, five people contacted the paper with their stories.

"My mother-in-law was assaulted four times in two days and then she discharged herself from hospital," said Pauline Hatton, of Vancouver, whose mother-in-law was placed in a room with three men at Victoria General Hospital in August 2010.

A man, suffering from dementia, thought the 84 year-old woman was his wife, Hatton said.

"He was on top of her saying, 'You are my wife and I want you.' She screamed and they came and pulled him off," she said.

The man was sedated and put back to bed, but later tried to assault her mother-in-law again, Hatton said. The following night, the woman ensured her cane was within reach and hit out as the man approached. "She fought him and he fell and broke his hip," Hatton said.

Nurses did not chart the incidents, so, when the family complained to the Patient Care Quality Office, there was no record, except for the man being injured in a fall, she said.

Possible criminal assaults are referred to police. As in the Cowichan case, if there is suspicion of rape, specialized staff will look for evidence.

Less serious complaints are usually dealt with by staff or managers, Vancouver Island Health Authority spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said. Complaints resolved to everyone's satisfaction are sometimes not logged, but all are taken seriously, Marshall said.

"None of us want to think that anyone in hospital is at risk of inappropriate sexual behaviour by another patient, whether demented or not," she said.

Some complaints, when investigated, are found to be without substance.

"We have many elderly patients and some of them are cognitively impaired or may be on one drug or another, and they make allegations of inappropriate behaviour, sexual assault, or someone came in and had sex with them and, on investigation, it never actually happened," Marshall said.

If patients are not satisfied, they go to the Patient Care Quality Office, where the complaint is formally registered and mediators look for a resolution. That can be followed by a review board hearing.

Hatton's mother-in-law eventually said she was satisfied, even though few changes were made, Hatton said. "She was so traumatized, she didn't want to talk about it any more," Hatton said.

VIHA is developing a formal policy to reduce use of mixed-gender rooms following the Cowichan assault, but Lucy Macleod, of Nanaimo, believes changes should have been made years ago. Her 83-year-old mother was in mixed gender rooms in Nanaimo Regional General Hospital twice between 2006 and 2008.

"After a stroke they put her in a semi-private room with a man that would not leave her alone. He kept pushing back the curtain even when we were there. It wasn't until I complained that something was done," Macleod said.

The second time she was in a room with three men and no curtain around her bed. "The man across from her kept yelling things at her," Macleod said. It was horrendous."

After Macleod complained, her mother was put in a semi-private room, where she died.

Many patients and families worry about complaining, said Katrine Conroy, NDP seniors and long-term care critic.

"It takes a lot of courage for families to come out and talk about it," she said.


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Mixing of genders in hospital rooms is common practice

The practice of mixing genders in hospital rooms started about a decade ago and is common across B.C. and most of Canada.

The long-term solution is single rooms. The new Patient Care Centre at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria has 83 per cent single rooms with private bathrooms. The remainder are two-bed rooms.

However, older hospitals, such as Victoria General, Nanaimo Regional and Cowichan District, continue to deal with overcrowding and have to use three- and four-bed rooms.

“We are moving toward single and double rooms, but it’s not something where we can change all the hospitals overnight,” said Health Ministry spokesman Ryan Jabs.

In the meantime, B.C health authorities have been told by the province to follow the lead of the Vancouver Island Health Authority and formalize policies to minimize the use of mixed-gender rooms.

The VIHA policy, now being formalized, will require patients in two-bed rooms to be the same gender. When it is necessary to mix genders in larger rooms, a minimum of two patients in each room must be women.

Patients in mixed-gender rooms must be mentally competent and able to speak out about concerns.

Those with known histories of violence, mental health issues or inappropriate sexual behaviour will not be placed in mixed rooms.

The lack of extended care beds contributes to overcrowding, and patients with dementia are sometimes left in acute care beds while awaiting more suitable care.

Norm Macleod, whose mother-in-law was harassed while she was in hospital, said: “The top floors [of Nanaimo Regional Hospital] were filled with people waiting to get into a home.”

However, cases of severe sexual assault are rare, VIHA spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said.

The alleged sexual assault of an 83-year-old woman in Cowichan District Hospital is believed to be the only recent case which has led to criminal charges.

A 48-year-old man will appear in Duncan court Feb. 14 to face sexual assault charges.

“I do think we have to be really careful about pressing the panic button about sexual predators in hospitals. That’s not the case,” Marshall said.