The great hospital robbery: Defibrillators, baby heart monitors, even beds – thieves are walking out of NHS wards with vital equipment
07:20 GMT, 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
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 blas 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
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.