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Experts' call over patient neglect

Experts have called for prosecutions for NHS workers who are found to neglect patients.

The call came after investigations into the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

The probes, held in 2009 and last year, found that between 400 and 1,200 more people died than expected.

It was found that there were not enough staff - and those there had often not been trained well enough.

The shortages saw junior doctors supervising night shifts, and patients left hungry, thirsty and sometimes without medication.

Some were left in pain or needing the toilet, or sat in soiled bedding for hours at a time.

Experts writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics said staff should be prosecuted for such a "gross dereliction of duty", as already happens in France.

"No care was taken to ensure that patients were fed," they said. "Basic standards of hygiene were not met, with relatives resorting to taking sheets home to wash."

At present, staff in England can face prosecution only if a serious error results in the death of a patient.

However, doctors and nurses caring for patients under the Mental Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act may be prosecuted for wilful neglect.

The researchers, from the University of Manchester's centre for social ethics and policy, say Mid Staffordshire is not the first example of "abysmal" NHS care and will not be the last.

"Ill-treatment of a patient requires a deliberate course of conduct," they say.

"If wilful neglect was extended to the wider healthcare setting, liability would only ensue if the healthcare professional was indifferent to his/her patient's welfare."

Copyright © Press Association 2011

Journal of Medical Ethics