THE Health Service Executive (HSE) has admitted it is using mixed-gender wards in some hospitals to "optimise the availability" of bed spaces – despite concerns from patients about dignity and privacy.
Health bosses said the practice was being used in emergency departments, acute medical assessment units, intensive care units and coronary care units, but the situation is avoided where possible.
The practice has drawn criticism from the Irish Patients' Association.
Spokesman Stephen McMahon said the wishes of the patient had to be honoured and people were entitled to expect appropriate care for their age and needs.
"A lot of people enjoy the experience of being in a mixed ward and it can even aid their recovery but the needs of the patient have to come first and for some patients it is very distressing and can have a big impact on them," he said.
He also pointed out that mixed-sex wards raised the issue of appropriate staffing levels.
"If someone needs assistance to go to the toilet, for example, on a mixed ward, will the person that helps them be male or female and do staffing levels on mixed-sex wards accommodate this?"
The issue was raised at a recent meeting of the HSE South regional health forum, where independent councillor Brendan Cronin called for the practice to be stopped. He issued the request after concerns were raised by the relatives of elderly patients at a HSE-run hospital in Co Kerry.
HSE area manager Michael Fitzgerald said while it was not "general practice" to mix male and female patients in in-patient wards, all hospitals had to "optimise the availability and occupancy of all bed spaces".
"As a result, there are extenuating circumstances where mixed wards can occur in emergency departments, acute medical assessment units, intensive care units and coronary care units.
"In these situations best practices are in place to protect the privacy and dignity of patients," Mr Fitzgerald said.
The HSE said it had nothing further to add to Mr Fitzgerald's statement. It declined to comment on how widespread the practice was at its hospitals or whether patients were asked for their consent.
Mr Cronin said he wasn't happy with the response, which referred to specialist units and not to general wards.
"They deflected away from the issue I was raising, which was about general wards in hospitals and I asked them to ensure there would not be a repetition of this," Mr Cronin said.
"It's not acceptable, as it does not ensure the protection of patient dignity and can create embarrassing situations for patients, and it's totally inappropriate for it to continue in multi-bed wards," he added.