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The practice of men and women sharing hospital rooms violates human rights and should be prohibited, a group of academics argues.

In a paper just published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the researchers outline how mixed gender hospital rooms go against the fundamental human rights of personal security and dignity.

Cindy Towns imageDr Cindy Towns.

Lead author Dr Cindy Towns, of the University of Otago, Wellington, says placing male and female patients in the same room “compromises the safety of female patients and threatens the dignity of all patients”.

“Risk of rights violations and subsequent harm is exacerbated by the high rates of physical, cognitive, and sensory impairment experienced by people in hospital wards.

“New Zealand needs to immediately adopt specific national policies prohibiting mixed gender hospital rooms and mandating public reporting of breaches,” she says.

Despite being prohibited in the United Kingdom for more than a decade, the practice is common and increasing in New Zealand.

Previous research by the group showed mixed rooms were common in a major New Zealand public hospital – in the more than 160,000 admissions analysed, 48 per cent were affected by mixed gender rooms. The prevalence also increased over the eight-year period studied, and disproportionately affected vulnerable older adults.

Health system reviews, patient surveys and media reports in Australia and the UK have highlighted increased distress and fear of assault amongst women in mixed gender rooms.

“Being forced into a room with men when unwell and vulnerable – often separated by only a curtain – may be traumatising to many women, even if the perception of threat or danger isn’t realised. It’s not surprising that the practice has been a frequent topic of complaint in feedback from patients, their families and the staff who care for them.

“Mixed gender rooms breach the psychological safety of these patients, but this is avoidable by changing bed management practices,” Dr Towns says.

The researchers argue that hospitals need to be designed with single occupancy rooms as the standard of care.

“The majority of patients prefer having their own room, it allows for visitor access without disturbing other patients, improves infection control and enhances the disclosure of private health information.

“It would also enable more respectful care for gender diverse patients who may not identify with a male or female gender binary.”

Because redesigning or rebuilding hospitals would take time, even if support and financing were obtained, the researchers argue the best approach to respect patient rights and reduce harm is single gender rooms.

“Male and female patients express a preference for single gender rooms. For female patients, this preference is associated with fear of violence while for male patients it is expressed as general concern and discomfort.

“Respecting these preferences is essential to maintain patient dignity during their hospital stay.”

Publication details

Blowing the whistle on mixed gender hospital rooms in Australia and New Zealand: a human rights issue
Cindy Towns, Angela Ballantyne
Journal of Medical Ethics
DOI: 10.1136/jme-2023-109080

For more information, contact:

Dr Cindy Towns
Bioethics Centre
University of Otago

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 278 8200

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