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Dispatches: Undercover: Inside The Priory

Category: News Release

TX: Monday 19th February at 8pm on Channel 4


The famous Priory is the name behind a privately owned group of hospitals providing psychiatric care in the UK. An undercover investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches at one of the Priory Group hospitals, The Dene, in West Sussex, run by Partnerships in Care, reveals the unacceptable restraint of a patient, and both staff and patients at risk.

As the largest private provider that leases mental health beds to the NHS, in the first nine months of 2017 the Priory Group received 90% of its income from public funds– over £540 million. However, the Dispatches investigation at The Dene finds evidence of inadequate safety equipment and several reports of staff shortages as well as questionable care.

During an incident when a patient gains entry to a medicine room, her finger is bent back in the struggle to prevent her from getting hold of medication. The Dispatches reporter sees a nurse using his knee in the patient’s back as he forces the patient out of the room.

Commenting on the undercover footage, Joy Duxbury, a Professor in Mental Health Nursing, said:

     “You would not expect pain to be inflicted and particularly to see somebody put their knee in an individual’s back… is totally unacceptable.”

In a later incident, the reporter is left alone with the same patient, who ties a sock around her own neck, creating a ligature, and grabs hold of the reporter’s keys. The reporter twice requests help via her radio before the patient manages to throw the radio out of reach into the corridor. The incident lasts for more than three minutes before a staff member who happens to walk past, comes to the reporter’s aid.

The Dene is run by Partnerships in Care, which merged with The Priory in 2016. A CQC (Care Quality Commission) inspection in June 2017 rated The Dene’s services as ‘good’. However, during the investigation, there are nine incidences of the undercover reporter being told that there are staffing shortages at the hospital.

The NHS has closed most of its psychiatric inpatient beds and funds hundreds of mental health patients in privately owned hospitals like The Dene.

A senior figure at Acadia Healthcare, the American owners of The Priory Group, Joey Jacobs, has previously said:

      "What we would look forward to, or hope does occur, is that the NHS continue to close beds and have a need to outsource those patients to the private providers. We think, that or are optimistic, that if the NHS closes more beds and outsources those, we would be the big winner there."

The undercover footage captures:

  • A safety briefing for the undercover reporter before her first shift, during which staff tell her there are secure doors that do not always close properly and that personal alarms will not always prompt a response.
  • A senior staff member threatening a patient with seclusion, which NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) guidelines specify must not be used as a punishment.

Staff member speaking during safety briefing:

Can I be straight? This [the alarm] won’t always get you the response you need. If you’re not carrying a radio just make some noise and pull it together and someone will come to you. Obviously if you have a radio then use it but sometimes not everybody can carry one.

Dr Sylvia Tang, CEO of Priory Healthcare and Partnerships in Care said:

"The safety of our patients is always our first priority and we constantly seek to improve the care we provide by working closely with our patients, staff, regulators, commissioners….

"We have taken these concerns very seriously and have already taken a number of actions to investigate and, where appropriate, address the potential issues identified. …

"It is not industry practice for all staff …to carry a radio. All staff on a shift are issued with a personal alarm which should be ...replaced if not working.

"The replacement of doors and locks is a continuous process. Ten doors have been replaced since 1 December 2016 … magnetic locks … are currently on order.

"We have clear staffing ladders for all wards… in accordance with best practice guidelines...

"The necessary use of agency staff applies … across mental healthcare provision in the UK…. The national average is currently 30-50% … The Dene’s agency staffing usage is currently 30%, but we have a clear action plan to reduce this.

"The Dene is one of the most challenging mental health units in the country … We are committed to learning lessons from any incidents including shortcomings in our care ….and we apologise if an any time patient or staff safety has been compromised. However, we strongly dispute a number of the allegations made. This is not representative of the safety and quality of our services at The Dene.

"The availability of independent mental health services enables the NHS to give very unwell patients immediate access to treatment…."



Production Companies: Angel Eye and Poor Dog

Executive Producer: Jane Dibblin

Producer/Director: Jenny Evans