The great hospital robbery: Defibrillators, baby heart monitors, even beds – thieves are walking out of NHS wards with vital equipment

Read Time:7 Minute, 43 Second

By John Naish

PUBLISHED:20:32 EST, 24  September 2012| UPDATED:02:20 EST, 25 September 2012


You may think that even the lowest, most  callous criminal would draw the line at stealing life-saving medical equipment  such as baby heart monitors and emergency resuscitation systems from NHS  hospitals.

But across the country, millions of pounds  worth of such vital essential kit is being stolen every year.

Often it’s high-value specialist technology  that’s disappearing, apparently stolen to order by organised gangs.

Local hospital trust managers have been allowed to bury the losses in financial reports or behind barriers of bureaucratic secrecy  

Local hospital trust managers have been allowed to bury  the losses in financial reports or behind barriers of bureaucratic secrecy

Experts suggest they are spiriting it abroad,  to Eastern Europe or even as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, shockingly, NHS staff are sometimes  involved, acting as an ‘inside man’.

But if such thefts are not scandalous enough  in themselves, NHS chiefs appear to be so blasé about the losses they don’t even  have a national picture of how much equipment is being stolen, let alone a  comprehensive anti-theft strategy.

Instead, local hospital trust managers have  been allowed to bury the losses in financial reports or behind barriers of  bureaucratic secrecy.

Often, the true scale of health service  security lapses can be glimpsed only through subjecting individual hospitals to  Freedom of Information Act requests.

For example, it took detailed analysis of a  list of NHS trusts’ annual accounts for 2010-2011 to uncover the fact the  North-West London Hospitals NHS Trust had written off more than £220,000 in  stolen medical equipment in a year.

And it took an official request last year  under the Freedom of Information Act before hospital trust chiefs revealed that  last year thieves had removed an astonishing haul of equipment from Derbyshire  Royal Infirmary, including CT scanner equipment and ventilator, as well as  thermometers and pregnancy testing kits.

A hospital security officer, Robert  Palfreyman, told reporters he believed the items were sold to private companies — in many cases abroad.

And much of the theft was achieved using a  trick called ‘tailgating’, to get past security barriers.

‘They turn up in a suit wearing a fake NHS  security badge and tailgate people through doors,’ he said.

In June last year, following another Freedom  of Information Act request, East Kent Hospitals Trust revealed a specialist  autopsy examination table, among other items, had been stolen.

We may be losing around £13 million worth of equipment every year 

We may be losing around £13 million worth of equipment  every year

Meanwhile, in East Sussex, thieves stole £6,000 worth of patient-monitoring equipment, including a foetal aid monitor and  swine flu respirators. And at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, eight hospital  beds were taken.

To make matters worse, NHS trusts  can’t claim for the stolen property, says Sarah Bailey of the Association  of British Insurers.

‘The NHS does not tend to take out commercial  insurance policies. Instead, it “self-insures”, which means it absorbs the cost  of its losses, rather than taking out policies that could be expensive.’

As she points out: ‘Ultimately, it could be  the taxpayer who funds those losses.’

Such crimes can disrupt life-saving surgery.

Last year, at least one operation had to be  postponed at the Central Middlesex Hospital after vital surgical sterilising  equipment, worth  more than £250,000, was stolen in a series of thefts over  several months.

A spokeswoman for the North West London  Hospitals NHS Trust the trust had to borrow equipment in order to keep  performing vital ops.

The impact on care should make crime  prevention a top priority for NHS bosses, says Katherine Murphy of The Patients  Association.

‘This not only is a risk to patients who  depend on high quality medical equipment, but is also costing the NHS a huge  amount of money.

At a time when the Government is making £20  billion of NHS savings, not a penny should be wasted unnecessarily.’

While we don’t have a clear picture of how  much equipment is lost every year, an important clue comes from official figures  obtained by the Scottish Labour Party, which show that across Scotland in 2010, £1.13 million worth of NHS hospital equipment went missing — including a £60,000  medical scanner.

If the same rate of theft is happening across  the rest of Britain, we may be losing around £13 million worth of equipment  every year.

Laptops used by hospital staff are the most  frequent target of hospital thieves, which could mean millions of people’s  personal details and medical records have fallen into the hands of  criminals.

In June last year, for example, NHS North  Central London admitted that an apparently unencrypted laptop, containing  details of more than eight million patients, was one of 20 machines reported  stolen from a storeroom.

When computer thefts result in the loss of  sensitive information on patients, this has to be reported to the Information  Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the independent public authority set up to uphold  information rights.

Figures from the ICO show that the NHS is the  top sector for such losses, with significantly more incidents than the whole of  the private sector put together.

Such is the ICO’s frustration at NHS theft  that earlier this year it slapped an unprecedentedly large fine of £375,000 on  Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust after 232 computer  hard-drives, containing sensitive financial and medical information, were stolen  from Brighton General Hospital in September 2010.

Police were alerted when the drives turned up  on eBay.

A man was arrested on suspicion of theft and  bailed before police decided no action should be taken. Shockingly, the health  service apparently has a lax attitude towards thefts. Responsibility for this  area comes under the NHS Security Management Service.

The problem is that this body doesn’t have  direct authority over local hospital trusts. It has to ask them to submit  information on thefts voluntarily, and that has failed to happen  sufficiently.

‘The information system does not have  adequate information to give out a global figure for all the thefts across the  NHS,’ says a source within the service, who asked to remain anonymous.

The problem is compounded, the source says,  by the fact that hospital trusts often simply don’t know when expensive  equipment has been stolen, thanks to weaknesses in the systems they use to track  their property.

‘I’m sure scanners and medical equipment are  turning up in Africa and Europe,’ said the  source.

This is probably true, says Gareth Barkwill,  who runs The National Plant and Equipment Register, a specialist detective  organisation that traces high-cost machinery — usually industrial and  agricultural — that’s been spirited out of the country.

At the heart of such sophisticated thefts lie  organised international criminal gangs, which often have links with terrorism.

In the Nineties, Mr Barkwill’s firm was  locating stolen tractors and harvesters in Ireland and the Gaza Strip. Such  machines can cost in excess of £100,000.

Now the stolen equipment is turning up in  Afghanistan and Iraq, he says — places where there is a lot of development.

Mr Barkwill believes high-value NHS thefts  may be helped by people working within the service.

‘You need specialist knowledge to identify,  steal, transport and sell such sophisticated items. Often you can catch the  little guys who steal stuff because they do something stupid such as putting  them for sale on eBay. The organised guys are harder to catch.’

One of the small fry was Douglas Stevenson,  31, an anaesthetic assistant, who was jailed in April last year for stealing  more than £23,000 worth of medical supplies.

The Glaswegian was sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment after equipment manufacturers spotted their products on eBay and  reported their suspicions to the NHS Counter Fraud Service.

He stole supplies and equipment, including  surgical implants and specialist drill bits for brain operations, from a number  of hospitals, including Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

Earlier this year, nurse Priscilla  Hlatshwayo, 38, was convicted of handling stolen goods after police found a  cardiac arrest defibrillator, oxygen monitor and other medical machines worth £3,600 in her home.

They’d been stolen from NHS hospitals in  Greater Manchester and Cheshire.

No one seems to be taking the threat  seriously, though.

The Metropolitan Police, which has a national  unit dedicated to tracing stolen equipment such as tractors, says it does not  have any staff dedicated to tracking medical equipment thefts.

The NHS Confederation, which represents  Britain’s hospital chiefs, says it is ‘not something that it is focused on’.

It referred the Mail to The Health Estates  Facilities Management Association, which has not responded to our  inquiries.

The Department of Health maintains that  enough is being done to tackle the problem.

A spokeswoman says: ‘Any theft of NHS  property is taken extremely seriously and all NHS bodies must have proper plans  in place to prevent and report theft.’

But without a serious, systematic  investigation of high-value equipment theft, we will never discover who the  culprits are or how much is being stolen.

Instead, the health service will continue to  bleed vital equipment — equipment we have all worked hard to fund

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