Hospital apologises after staff said sex assault on patient 'didn't happen'

West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds declared an 'internal critical incident' earlier this month

West Suffolk Hospital staff have been accused of failing a mental health patient who was sexually assaulted while attending A&E - Credit: PA

The boss of a Suffolk NHS Trust has apologised to a sexual assault victim who was attacked while in hospital after staff "dismissed" her report and claimed the incident "did not happen".

The victim, who has anonymity under law, was admitted to West Suffolk Hospital's emergency department following an overdose in January 2021.

She was waiting for a mental health assessment from Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust's specialist team when she reported being attacked by a male patient in the cubicle next to hers.

The victim immediately told a nurse what had happened, as well as the specialist team who assessed her after the sexual assault took place. 

But a patient safety review into the incident, published several months later and shared with the Health Service Journal (HSJ), reveals the nurse who was told about the sexual assault stated "this has not happened" in her notes, incorrectly adding that the male had been under "constant observation".

The mental health team also did not escalate the allegation to senior managers, who only became aware of the incident when the victim raised a complaint with the hospital in March.

Craig Black, interim chief executive at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

Craig Black, interim chief executive at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust - Credit: West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

In a letter to the patient, West Suffolk Hospital's interim chief executive Craig Black said he was "truly sorry [she] was sexually assaulted in the emergency department" and was saddened to hear staff "dismissed" her claims.

Interim medical director Dr Paul Molyneux added: "We know that the support given at the time could and should have been better.

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"Our investigation has resulted in several actions being put in place across our ED department and the Trust more widely."

An NSFT spokeswoman said the team were sorry the patient's allegations were not dealt with appropriately, and that ED staff had received mental health training since the incident.

According to the safety report, the victim told police about her assault in February last year, following which officers called NSFT's specialist team and the A&E reception. 

West Suffolk Hospital A&E.

West Suffolk Hospital A&E. - Credit: Archant

But detectives were wrongly told that no male had been admitted for assessment in January when the victim was assessed by staff in the ED.

By the time senior managers were informed about the attack in March, the CCTV 28-day retention period was over and the footage could not be used in any further police investigation.

The victim told the HSJ she was "shocked, confused and furious" to discover her assault had been dismissed when she had "done everything someone who is sexually assaulted should do".

Recommendations of the review included:

  • Reviewing the Trust’s 'safeguarding adults at risk of abuse and neglect policy' and amending it to to include an escalation flowchart, so all staff can easily find out how to escalate incidents of this kind

  • All emergency department and specialist team staff must have annual refresher training on the Trust’s ‘safeguarding adults at risk of abuse and neglect policy’

  • All confused and/or vulnerable patients presenting to A&E must be assessed and monitored in line with clinical guidance, and they must remain within the main department and not placed in cubicles [as in this incident] with limited observation

  • Work should be carried out to colour code areas of the emergency department to ensure that vulnerable patients are placed in the safest areas of the department