Mentally ill abscond

MENTAL health patients absconded from St Clement's hospital 44 times last year, The Evening Star can reveal today.This figure, along with a catalogue of other serious problems that occurred in Suffolk's health system in 2004, has been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

MENTAL health patients absconded from St Clement's hospital 44 times last year, The Evening Star can reveal today.

This figure, along with a catalogue of other serious problems that occurred in Suffolk's health system in 2004, has been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

In total there were 78 so-called Serious Untoward Incidents (SUIs) in Suffolk last year.

These range from instances of professional misconduct to unexpected deaths to equipment failure. They also include an organ retention issue at the West Suffolk Hospital and reports of a bogus health visitor in the county. But the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority - the body that reviews the incidents and collates the figures - will not provide any further details.

They say that to release further information could be prejudicial to their incident reporting system and compromise patient confidentiality.

The figures take into account all of the health trusts based in the area, as well as the East Anglian Ambulance Trust.

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All health trusts have a responsibility to report any Serious Untoward Incidents to the Strategic Health Authority. A SUI is defined as any unexpected event, occurring on an NHS site or in NHS care involving patients, relatives, visitors, staff, students undertaking work experience and their tutors, contractors, equipment, building or property.

A spokesman for the Strategic Health Authority said: "We work with the trusts to encourage them to report incidents to us.

"The incidents will be reviewed by our director of clinical governance who will look for any patterns emerging from an organisation or across the patch."

In 2003 there were only 19 SUIs reported in the whole county but the spokesman said the increase in 2004 is to do with people's willingness to report rather than a rise in incidents.

He said: "The SHA's SUI reporting system was only really set up properly in 2002 and it takes a great deal of trust for an organisation to report these things.

"You find the number of incidents an organisation reports has no bearing on whether they are a good or bad organisation, it usually just means they have a better risk assessment procedure in place."

In Suffolk in 2004, 44 of the 78 incidents reported were absconsions from St Clement's Hospital. In 2003 there were no absconsions reported.

Martin Royal, director of strategy for Suffolk Mental Health Partnerships NHS Trust, said: "These are absconsions of people who are detained under the Mental Health Act ('sectioned').

"Absconsions can occur when you take someone out in to the garden. If they decide to make a run for it there is not a lot you can do.

"They can also happen when low-risk patients are allowed out on home leave and fail to return."

He said all of the absconsions in 2004 were resolved in a matter of hours and the trust maintains close contact with the police. As soon as someone is reported missing the police are contacted.

Mr Royal said: "We don't actually have a secure facility or Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) on this site. The Parham Ward has a locked-door policy but this is rarely applied. The ward does not operate as a PICU because it is not equipped to do so.

"We do what we can to prevent people escaping and have built a closed wall around the garden area but if the person decides they want to make a break for it, they will do it."

Currently all patients whose illnesses are so severe that they are classified as needing this kind of intensive treatment have to be taken out of the county, but the trust hopes to build a PICU as part of their proposed redevelopment of the hospital grounds.

Mr Royal said: "The majority of patients are sectioned because they represent harm to themselves. They may be so clinically depressed that what they'd like to do is go off and kill themselves."

Mr Royal said the increase in absconsions reported as SUIs was due to a change in their reporting procedures. Prior to the beginning of last year, the trust only reported absconsions which resulted in a serious incident such as the patient getting drunk or harming themselves. Now they report a SUI every time someone absconds, even if this is only for a matter of hours.

He added: "Patient safety is our priority and regular risk assessments are carried out on the patients who are most likely to abscond."

A spokesman for the West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust, which recorded seven incidents in 2004, said: "It is standard practice for hospitals to have a system of recording and reporting unusual incidents.

"These cover every aspect of activity both medical and non-medical that is considered to be outside the norm.

"The West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust takes seriously untoward incidents and reports them to the Strategic Health Authority as a matter of course.

"Each one is studied to enable the organisation to gain from any lessons that can be learned."

A spokeswoman for the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust said: "Details of SUIs are investigated by us and then a series of remedial actions are considered which will hopefully prevent reoccurrence of the incident."

What stories would you like us to look into under the Freedom of Information Act? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send us an e-mail to

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