NHS workers have reported 22,143 alleged cases of sexual abuse over the last five years, a British Medical Journal investigation has found.

In a joint investigation, The BMJ and the Guardian received Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from 212 NHS trusts, which showed 35,606 ‘sexual safety incidents’ were recorded between 2017 and 2022. Most incidents (58 per cent) involved patients abusing staff. 

Journalists Ingrid Torjesen and Adele Waters found only one in ten NHS trusts has a dedicated policy to tackle the issue, saying the trusts are “failing to protect staff and patients”.

Of the alleged cases reported, 20,928 staff members were abused by patients, 902 were abused by other staff, and 313 were abused by visitors. At least one fifth of incidents involved rape, sexual assault, or non-consensual kissing or touching. However, not all trusts provided a breakdown of the types of incidents reported.

Based on data from a British Medical Journal investigation. (Infographic: Ben Shahrabi)

A large number of patients have also been targetted with sexual abuse. In total, 12,234 patients reported their experiences. Of those, 7,464 patients were abused by other patients, 3,218 patients were abused by staff, and 1,552 patients were abused by visitors.

Across the UK, 32 police forces recorded 180 cases of rape of children under 16 on NHS premises between 2017 and 2022, with four children under 16 being gang raped. There were a further 186 reports of children under 16 being sexually assaulted and 127 reports of crimes including grooming, assaulting a child by penetration, sexual communication with a child, inciting sexual activity with a child, and causing a child to watch a sex act.

It is unknown where incidents affecting children took place. However, Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at the London Metropolitan University, believes there is a child safety issue in mental healthcare settings. She has urged police forces to record the location of crimes in greater detail, for a better understanding of where most incidents are happening, to help tackle the issue. 

Experts say the figures reported “vastly underestimate” the problem, due to poor systems for recording across the health service. The BMJ reported each NHS trust had a different practice regarding whether cases are reported before or after an investigation or disciplinary action.