Epsom Hospital is facing serious questions over the privacy and dignity of patients after it emerged that an operation last week was conducted in full view of visitors.

A horrified Claire Walsh contacted this newspaper after witnessing the operation while visiting Buckley ward, in the hospital's Wells Wing, last Friday.

The care assistant, from Tattenham Corner, said she, three other visitors and a patient saw surgery taking place in a room opposite the Wells Wing.

Miss Walsh explained that a window in Buckley ward overlooks the window of an operating theatre in the opposite building, which she believed was  the Day Case Unit - although the hospital has subsequently confirmed that it was not in that unit.

She said some of the blinds in that window were open and she could see a completely naked body being operated on by surgeons in gowns and scrubs.

The 38-year-old said she informed a nurse on Buckley ward, who said "that happens all the time" and did not take any action to raise the alarm with operating staff.

Epsom Hospital has apologised to the patient involved and said the blinds had not been closed properly after the window was cleaned.

It has launched a "thorough and urgent" investigation into the incident which it said it deeply regrets.

But it refused to reveal how long the blinds may have been open, how many other operations may have been overlooked, what sort of operations are carrried out in that operating theatre or even who cleans the windows.

In a statement it claimed it could not reveal any further information "until all the facts are fully established".

Miss Walsh said she was "still in shock" after witnessing the operation, which she said was continuing as she left after her half-hour visit.

She said: "I could see the whole thing.  The blinds were open, not closed, so you could see straight through.

"Half of the window had blinds, but the other half didn’t have blinds at all.

"There was a naked body lying on its side.  The doctors were lifting up the leg and doing all kinds of bits to the body.

"It looked like they were making incisions and there was someone standing over the body.

"The whole of the back part of the body was showing."

Epsom Guardian:

A map of the Epsom Hospital site showing the Wells Wing and Day Surgery (Case) Unit

Miss Walsh said the main lights of the operating room were on and there was another light close to the patient.

She said: "It was still light outside.  The blinds should have been shut. 

"That poor person’s respect and dignity had gone out of the window.  Where did their rights come into it?

"The visitors were all disgusted and so was the patient who saw. 

"I feel sorry for that person, it’s just awful.  If I had a kid with me that would have been traumatic and horrific."

She contacted the hospital to report the incident and has been referred to its Patient Advise and Liaison Service.

In a statement, Epsom Hospital said it has launched a full investigation into the matter and has taken immediate action to ensure this could not happen to another patient.

It said: "As a trust we take the privacy, dignity and confidentiality of our patients very seriously.

"On Friday, January 10, we believe that a secure blind in a window to one of your operating theatre, which is usually closed and locked between two panes of double glazing, was not closed properly after the window was cleaned.

"As such, part of one of our operating theatres may have been visible to a small number of other patients and we deeply regret that.

"We have contacted the patient affected to discuss this incident and have offered our full and sincere apologies.

"However, as with any patient undergoing an operation, this patient would have been protected by a gown and sterilised drapes throughout the procedure."

Epsom Guardian:

The Duchess of Gloucester opened the Day Case Unit at Epsom Hospital in October 2012

A hospital spokeswoman said that having spoken to the staff and surgeon who conducted the operation in question, it does not believe that the patient would have been naked at any point.

She added: "During the operation the patient is covered in sterile theatre drapes so only a small part of the side of the body would have been exposed."

Asked about the nurse’s comments to Miss Walsh which suggested that this was not a one-off incident, the spokeswoman said: "The issue has never been raised with us before.

"We are currently looking into the allegation that this lady’s claims were initially dismissed."

The hospital's joint medical director Dr Ruth Charlton, issued a statement yesterday saying: "We would like to assure our patients and visitors that we are taking this matter very seriously, and the thorough investigation we have launched is still underway.

"As such, we cannot offer any further information until all of the facts are fully established.

"This is the first time such an incident has ever been reported to us, and we are urgently investigating the allegations.

"Although it is rare, in any situation where we feel that a patients’ privacy may have been compromised we will not hesitate to act, and will take immediate steps to help ensure that a similar event could not happen again.

"I have personally asked all five of our directorates - medicine, women and children’s, regional services, clinical services and surgery, critical care and anaesthetics - to review every clinical area they are responsible for, in order to ensure that the privacy and dignity of every patient we treat is protected at all times."

The preservation of modesty during operations is an important and highly sensitive issue for patients and healtcare staff - especially when the patient is sedated and has no control who is able to see their body.

The £2.5m Day Case Unit at the hospital was opened in October 2012 by the Duchess of Gloucester. 

At the time, Matthew Hopkins, the hospital’s chief executive, said it was designed "around the needs of our patients with an emphasis on ensuring patients receive the utmost privacy and dignity".

Have you had an operation at Epsom Hospital recently? Leave a comment below or email Hardeep Matharu on the newsdesk on hmatharu@london.newsquest.co.uk.