Unregulated healthcare workers are a risk to the most vulnerable patients, a former victim’s commissioner has warned afterThe Independent and Sky News uncovered a “horrifying” sexual abuse scandal within NHS mental health services.
Dame Vera Baird called for a formal framework for healthcare assistants and support workers, who do not have a mandatory professional register like doctors and nurses and can “come in and go out from one hospital to another” without the same thorough checks.
Her warning comes after a joint investigation by this publication and Sky News revealed more than 500 reports of sexual assault and harassment on such wards since 2019.
Dame Vera told The Independent that the setup did not lead to a “very safe way of working” because healthcare assistants are “in an environment where they are responsible for vulnerable people”.
“If there has been abuse from mental health care assistants who are also agency staff who are coming in and going out from one hospital to another, that needs to be looked at,” she said.
“This is not a very safe way of working. Some kind of framework around agency staff seems to be very important [to have].”
She warned that sexual predators may go into mental health services and work in units where patients can be “highly sexualised”, prompting a “dreadful combination”.
The joint investigation was triggered by the extraordinary story of Alexis Quinn, who alleged she was sexually assaulted twice – once when she was placed in a male ward and a second time in a mixed-sex ward. Her story is revealed in an exclusive podcast by Sky News and The Independent – Patient 11.
Throughout the subsequent investigation, multiple patients came forward with their claims of abuse, including two women who were the victims of healthcare assistants.
Rivkah Grant, 34, was assaulted in Chase Farm hospital in 2016 by a healthcare assistant, and Nima Hunt, 23, was groomed and sexually abused by a care worker at a private children’s mental health hospital run by The Huntercombe Group.
Alison Leary, professor of healthcare and workforce at South Bank University, said: “Health and social care are heavily reliant on an unregulated support workforce to deliver care.
“There is little consistency in job titles, types of work or qualifications. This also means there are not professional standards to be held accountable to and virtually no data collection on those who are dismissed unless there is police action.”
There are currently at least 6,920 healthcare assistants working in NHS mental health services, and 6,629 support workers. This is more than double the number recorded in September 2009 when 2,731 healthcare workers were employed and 2,822 support workers.
Earlier this year The Independent revealed the story of a “monster” care worker who was jailed for raping and sexually assaulting dementia patients. The care worker, Teo-Valentin Todorovits, pled guilty to 12 charges of rape, sexual assault, voyeurism and neglect, across two care homes.
Despite the government promising to end mixed-sex care in 2010, figures for more than 30 trusts show 417 “breaches” to mixed-sex care standards from 2019 to November 2023.
He said: “It will appall every decent person that these horrific crimes were committed against patients at their most vulnerable. The fact these have taken place in the NHS is chilling.
“Very serious questions must urgently be asked of hospital leaders, who have to explain why the vast majority of these incidents were kept from the police.
“The Conservatives promised to end mixed-sex wards in 2010, yet soaring numbers of patients are treated alongside patients of the opposite sex. Patients often find this humiliating and, as this investigation shows, it leaves women in particular, vulnerable in hospital.
“The government must treat this investigation as a wake-up call and act against the soaring number of mixed-sex wards in the NHS today
Writing exclusively for The Independent, MP Jess Phillips also called out the government’s failure to act on mixed-sex wards.
She wrote: “There is no way on earth that I would think it appropriate for a woman so overtaken by trauma that she is left without the ability to function outside of a hospital to be placed in a ward where a man sleeps next to her. For all the government’s peacocking over single-sex spaces, they allow these conditions to continue.”
NHS England declined to comment further when asked about whether it aims to end the use of mixed sex accommodation.
The Department for Health and Social Care was approached for comment.