January 30, 2005 -- Today the Guardian (U.K.) web site posted a balanced piece by Jamie Doward, "Row erupts over secret filming of hospital filth," about a Channel 4 documentary based on the work of two nurses with hidden cameras who captured "appalling conditions" at two British hospitals, including poor sanitation and infection control practices in the care of elderly patients. Key issues raised by the documentary, "Dispatches: Undercover Angels," include the responsibility of nurses and other staff for the poor conditions, the appropriateness of the use of undercover cameras by caregivers on duty, and when the mass media will stop calling nurses "angels."
The producers of the "Dispatches" show sent the two nurses--whom the Channel 4 web site actually describes as "nursing assistants"--to hospitals in London and Bath that apparently ranked low in the National Health Service's "league tables." The nurses recorded other "nurses neglecting elderly patients left in their own urine and faeces while hospital staff ignore measures designed to counter the spread of superbugs," specifically the deadly MRSA. (The Channel 4 web site claims that "for the first time nurses are investigating nurses," though since nurses are generally responsible for their own licensing, it is presumably not the first time they have investigated each other.) The Guardian piece notes that the undercover footage "makes for grim viewing:" in one scene, the "nurses have forgotten to tell" a porter that the patient he is transporting is infected with MRSA, which has now been spread around the ward. Other scenes show a flooded toilet and a patient's mattress caked with blood. A Royal College of Nursing "member" appears on the show noting that care standards are now "very, very variable," and the filmmakers conclude that the nurses show "a surprising refusal to work as a team, a reluctance to take responsibility and at times a distaste for the dirty end of their work."
Unsurprisingly, hospitals and nursing organizations were not big fans of the documentary, arguing that it painted a distorted picture of the overall British nursing system, and that the undercover nurses were actually putting patients at risk by concentrating on filming rather than their care duties (the latter point may be correct, but seems a rather weak defense of the conduct on film). Channel 4 defended the public affairs program's use of hidden cameras, noting that in the past similar "Dispatches" investigations have uncovered unsafe practices in settings such as the meat industry. According to the Guardian piece, Channel 4 also noted that the "undercover reporters" had been under "strict instructions" that patients' needs had to come first, before filming. (We hope the nurses do not need television journalists to ensure that the nurses follow their own ethical and legal obligations.) Channel 4's web site states that the documentary "illustrates how the morale of dedicated nursing staff is crushed by the behaviour of their colleagues, suggesting a profession in crisis and failing to provide the basic levels of care we have come to expect." The Patients Association, which apparently advocates for hospital patients, said the program had raised "some genuine concerns."