The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said it had taken urgent action after a television documentary showed scenes of vulnerable patients being physically and mentally abused at a specialist hospital in County Durham.
Undercover footage captured by the BBC's Panorama programme showed adult patients with autism and learning difficulties at Whorlton Hall being deliberately provoked by staff who then physically restrained them.
One male member of staff claimed to have 'clotheslined' a female patient – holding out his arm at chest level to knock her to the floor. One distressed patient was shown being restrained by staff for 13 minutes.
Staff were filmed describing the NHS-funded, privately run hospital as a "house of mongs" and referring to a patient with autism as "possessed".
On Friday, Durham Police said 10 people had been arrested in connection with the alleged abuse and neglect of patients at Whorlton Hall.
The seven men and three women who worked at the unit are being released as inquiries continue. A police spokesperson said: "As this is an ongoing inquiry, we are unable to comment further at this time, other than to repeat that our immediate priority has been to work with other agencies to safeguard the victims at the centre of the allegations and their families.
"The investigation is at an early stage and is expected to take some time to complete."
'Deplorable and Inexplicable'
Cygnet Health Care, which runs the hospital in Barnard Castle, said it was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the allegations and had suspended all the staff involved. All patients had been transferred to other hospitals, it said.
Care England described the findings as "utterly deplorable" and "inexplicable".
The latest allegations come 8 years after the Winterbourne View scandal in which staff at another NHS-funded, privately run hospital were shown abusing people with learning difficulties and autism.
Whorlton Hall, which can house up to 19 patients with complex needs, was last inspected by the CQC in 2018 in response to concerns raised by whistleblowers. At the time of the inspection, the hospital was run by the Danshell Group, which was acquired by Cygnet in January 2019.
Inspectors found that patients and carers reported good treatment by staff. However, the report highlighted excessive working hours, and a reliance on agency staff who were not receiving appropriate training.
'We Missed What Was Really Going on'
Dr Paul Lelliott, CQC deputy chief inspector of hospitals, who leads on mental health, said: "It is clear now that we missed what was really going on at Whorlton Hall, and we are sorry.
"The patients we spoke to during this inspection told us they felt safe and had not experienced aggression towards them. We also spoke to health care professionals who had formal caring roles for patients at the hospital, but who were independent to the hospital; they did not raise any concerns.
"This illustrates how difficult it is to get under the skin of this type of 'closed culture' where people are placed for long periods of time in care settings far away from their communities, weakening their support networks and making it more difficult for their families to visit them and to spot problems.
"When you add staff who are deliberately concealing abusive behaviour, it has the potential to create a toxic environment."
The CQC said that since it was alerted to the evidence of abuse, it had informed the police. Sixteen members of permanent staff were suspended, and CQC inspectors, NHSE England, a safeguarding team from the local authority and clinical staff from the local NHS mental health trust have all been onsite to ensure that people are safe.
The CQC said it was investigating all other hospitals operated by Cygnet to see whether there are other areas of concern.
Last month, the CQC placed Thors Park in Essex, also run by Cygnet, into special measures because of safety concerns. It highlighted inadequate staff training at the Thorrington hospital, which can house up to 14 men with learning disabilities and complex needs.
The report, which followed an inspection in February 2019, noted allegations of abuse by staff towards patients.
A statement issued by Cygnet said: "We are shocked and deeply saddened by the allegations made against members of staff at Whorlton Hall, part of the Danshell Group, which Cygnet recently acquired.
"We take these allegations extremely seriously. We have suspended all the members of staff involved, simultaneously informed all relevant authorities, including the police, who have now instigated an inquiry and we are cooperating fully with their investigation.
"We have taken the initiative of transferring all the patients to other hospitals. The safety and care of our patients and residents is of paramount importance and we have zero tolerance of unprofessional conduct towards them.
"Those implicated in this programme have betrayed not only some of society's most vulnerable people but also the thousands of people at Cygnet who work daily with dedication and compassion to look after the people in their care.
"This appalling behaviour is entirely inconsistent with Cygnet Health Care's values and high standards and we remain absolutely committed to delivering the highest quality healthcare, which our patients and residents expect and deserve."
Cygnet, which is responsible for 140 services across the UK, said 85% of its services were rated 'good' or 'outstanding'.
Prof Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said: "It is unacceptable that 8 years after Winterbourne View, abuse has not been stamped out.
"Care England wants to work with the health and care system to see more people cared for in local communities.
"It is essential that commissioners, the regulator CQC, and providers of care homes, supported living and other housing settings, work together to increase community capacity for people currently in hospitals. This is a process that should be led by, and reflect the needs and ambitions, of people with learning disabilities and their families."
Image Credits: BBC Panorama
Editor's Note: This article was updated to include new information from Durham Constabulary
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Cite this: Peter Russell. Hospital Staff Accused of Abusing Vulnerable Patients - Medscape - May 23, 2019.