Five patients a day abscond from Northern Ireland's hospitals and psychiatric units
Five patients a day walked out of acute and psychiatric hospitals last year, shocking new figures released to the Belfast Telegraph reveal.
Hospital abscondings throughout Northern Ireland have increased by a quarter over the last three years with just under 5,500 events recorded since April, 2012.
The figures were given by each of the five health trusts under a Freedom of Information request by this paper.
They show that an average of three people treated in general wards and two mental health patients left, or attempted to leave, hospitals every day throughout 2014/2015.
Some of the psychiatric patients did not return to resume their care; one patient died in 2014/15 and at least 18 came to harm through injury outside.
Last night Policing Board Member Jonathan Craig called on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to do more to safeguard patients and reduce the "huge resource implication" on the PSNI which is tasked in locating patients deemed to be vulnerable.
In total, three health trusts reported two deaths and 49 patients coming to harm since April, 2012, while Southern Health Trust reported several patients noted as having 'minor injuries on return to hospital'.
Only the Western Trust failed to give information on its absconders coming to harm outside hospital.
There were 921 general ward abscondments and 708 abscondments from psychiatric wards in 2012/13 (1,629) and this increased to 1,151 general ward abscondments and 878 abscondments from psychiatric wards (2,209) in 2014/15.
This represents a 24.5% increase, with the biggest difference coming in the numbers of absconders from general wards of acute hospitals.
Some of the figures include multiple attempts by individual patients to leave hospital care.
The statistics show the reality of what hospital staff face in trying to keep patients safe while under treatment at a time when thousands of patients are waiting to be admitted for treatment.
Patients walk out of hospital for a variety of reasons but many are under significant psychological or emotional distress.
The PSNI are called to help locate mental health patients or patients thought to be vulnerable.
Mr Craig described the figures as "alarming" and called on the Department of Health to take action on reducing the incidents.
The DUP MLA for Lagan Valley added: "The consequences of some of these people going missing is absolutely horrendous."
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing, called on the DHSSPS, the Commissioner and the health trusts to launch a thorough investigation to identify the action taken to reduce the numbers of patients who leave hospital without their care and treatment being completed.
Belfast Health and Social Care Trust has the highest number of patients absconding.
It has reported 633 absconders and attempts out of its general ward hospitals and 420 absconders from its psychiatric units in 2014/15.
It included missing patients in its figures, that is those missing off wards for some time.
The South Eastern Trust detailed 11 mental health patients who came to harm outside their units between 2012 and 2015 and four from acute inpatients.
The Health and Social Board, which contracts services for the five health trusts on behalf of DHSSPS, did not comment.
James Fenton went missing from the mental health ward at the Ulster Hospital on July 2, 2010, just hours after he was admitted suffering from severe depression. His body was found 10 weeks later in the hospital grounds, 40 metres away from a wooded area where he was last seen smoking. Two police officers had searched the hospital grounds after the PSNI was alerted to the 22-year-old's disappearance, but that search - as well as subsequent searches - failed to locate him. A new search involving 50 people was launched on September 11, 2010, and his body was found that afternoon. In 2013, a damning report by the Police Ombudsman found that James and his family "were let down by the PSNI". Thirteen officers were disciplined.