Doctors’ leaders have written to the head of the NHS demanding that hospitals provide inpatients with free sanitary towels and tampons.
The British Medical Association (BMA) argued that it was inconsistent for some hospitals to give out razors and shaving foam but not offer women sanitary products.
The union said towels and tampons are a basic human need – like food – and should be made freely available at all hospitals in the UK.
Some patients cannot afford to buy their own products, while others unexpectedly find themselves in hospital with nobody to rely on, it said.
The BMA sent Freedom of Information requests to NHS trusts and health boards in the UK and received responses from 187.
The research found that 42% either did not supply sanitary products at all, will only supply small amounts, or will supply them only in the case of an emergency.
For those that did have a supply, tampons and towels were often only available on gynaecology or maternity wards.
Only 22% of hospitals said they could easily be bought on site by the patient.
Some trusts and health boards said they spent nothing on sanitary products for inpatients. For those that did, the average spend was 71p per bed per year.
A rough estimate from the BMA suggests UK hospitals could supply the products for around £120,000 per year.
In a letter to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, the BMA’s board of science chairwoman, Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, said: “Action must be taken to ensure that patient experience of care is not jeopardised by the non-availability of these essential items.
“Patients must not be deterred from undergoing necessary treatment, or hindered in their recovery, because they are unable to access, or embarrassed to request, sanitary products.
“With patient experience and quality of care being such a clear priority for the NHS, sanitary products, which are relatively inexpensive, should be provided for free and readily available to all inpatients at hospital.”
BMA medical students committee member Eleanor Wilson, who has championed the issue, said: “When patients are under our care in the NHS, we need to make sure that we make them feel as welcome and as looked-after as possible.
“By not providing them with something so key to their health and well-being, it has a big impact on their sense of self-worth – we are effectively withholding that dignity from them.
“While some hospitals have good provision, in others, patients have had to face embarrassment and hope that relatives can bring them in, which for some is not an option, and it can often become more challenging for young and teenage paediatric patients.
“Like razors, shaving foam, toilet paper or food, it should be part of a basic package that is available to patients when they come under our care in hospital.”