Madrid hospital chief urged to resign over attempt to take phones away from patients

Dolores Rubio was caught on audio telling officials at Príncipe de Asturias that not enough people are being transferred to the newly built Isabel Zendal medical center

Personnel outside the Príncipe de Asturias hospital in Alcalá de Henares.
Personnel outside the Príncipe de Asturias hospital in Alcalá de Henares.fernando villar

The deputy premier of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado, on Thursday called for the resignation of a hospital manager caught saying that patients should be prohibited from having cellphones with which to contact family members.

The Cadena SER radio network released an audio recording in which Dolores Rubio, head of Príncipe de Asturias public hospital in Alcalá de Henares, 30 kilometers from the Spanish capital, is heard suggesting that communication between patients and their relatives should be cut off. The suggestion was prompted by several cases of families who refused having loved ones transferred to the new Nurse Isabel Zendal hospital, a medical center built in record time to relieve pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The family needs to be kept out of it. So you prohibit phones. Why do they need to call the family? Why do they need to have a cellphone?” says Rubio, insisting that a patient “does not need mommy or daddy or the next-door neighbor” to make the decision about the transfer. Rubio also compares hospitals with embassies, where “access with phones is not permitted.”

Madrid deputy premier Ignacio Aguado and premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso on Thursday.
Madrid deputy premier Ignacio Aguado and premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso on Thursday. Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)

After hearing the statements, Aguado said that Rubio should step down. “I’m going to be honest: what we heard in that audio is a lack of respect for patients and their families,” said the deputy premier, whose party Ciudadanos (Citizens) co-governs the region together with the Popular Party (PP). “A patient cannot be deprived of the possibility of talking to family members, of having a cellphone. People who support that should not be holding the positions they are holding right now. It is unacceptable.”

The mayor of Alcalá de Henares, Javier R. Palacios of the Socialist Party (PSOE), also called for Rubio’s departure. “There is only one way: the immediate dismissal of the hospital manager. With this kind of an attitude and measures she cannot keep running a public hospital serving 250,000 people.”

According to the radio station, the statements were made at a meeting of hospital officials held two weeks ago to assess the situation caused by the fact that very few patient transfers to the new center had taken place – only eight – while dozens of staff members had been sent to Zendal, located in Valdebebas, a district in the north of the city of Madrid. The new medical center was built in just 100 days with a view to relieving other hospitals stretched thin due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was inaugurated by regional premier Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), on December 1, 2020.

Patient transfers are voluntary, but most people have been rejecting the option, preferring to remain at their local hospital. In order to make it happen, Rubio was proposing taking phones away from the patients and informing families about the transfer when their loved ones are already “leaving the hospital.”

“They’re taking away our personnel, our personnel is at the Zendal...,” the hospital manager is heard saying. “We’re going to enter a spiral. We don’t have enough professionals because they are there, but we are not sending them patients and we complain that we don’t have enough professionals here (...) Send them to the Zendal.”

Covid-19 patients receiving treatment at the Nurse Isabel Zendal Hospital on January 18.
Covid-19 patients receiving treatment at the Nurse Isabel Zendal Hospital on January 18. Bernat Armangue (AP)

Rubio, who has only been a few months on the job, also suggested there could be inside people “boycotting” the transfers by telling patients that they should refuse. “Someone is boycotting this, because if the patient says yes, and we’ve had a few, and five minutes later someone walks in [the patient’s room] and the patient is now saying no...we have to see what’s happening here.”

In the recorded conversation, Rubio defended the quality of the newly built medical center and compared it with field hospitals set up by other regions. At one point she called it the best pandemics hospital in the world, better than the Chinese ones, “which are shit.”

The Cadena SER radio station underscored that any attempt to take phones away from patients would be a violation of the law, which also stipulates that not just patients but also other people with family ties must be informed of any relevant medical action.

English version by Susana Urra.

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