Waikato Hospital is a place where unwell and injured people go to be treated, but for thieves it has been a happy hunting ground.
Thousands of towels, gowns, facecloths and other items are being stolen from the hospital campus every month, costing the Waikato District Health Board tens of thousands of dollars each month - and fed-up health board managers say it is equivalent to people preying on the sick and injured directly.
Suggestions the items going missing from the hospital reflected socio-economic deprivation in the Waikato were not entertained by communications director Mary Anne Gill.
"It's stealing, and there is no excuse for stealing," she said. "They are stealing from you - the taxpayer."
"We have done a lot of work on this recently. Two years ago we implemented a project that would stop the bleeding, for want of a better term, and that has met with a lot of success, but it is still a big problem for us."
It is not just linen that gets taken. One hundred pillows disappear every month. Hospital wheelchairs have been found dumped in the Waikato River. Televisions, laptop computers, mobile phones and other items belonging to staff have all been targeted by "stair dancers".
"That's part of the reason why we have those poles on the top of wheelchairs now," Mrs Gill said. "People think we have them to hook all sorts of things up to them, but a big part of it is so people can't just shove them into the back of their cars.
"We have to literally bolt things down. The tables and chairs in the coffee shop are bolted to the floor now. We have TVs behind locked cupboards. Two or three years ago someone walked out with a piece of art."
A general amnesty on items which belonged at the hospital was being considered. "If anyone has hospital items at home we would encourage them to return them."
Contracts manager Donna Craig-Brown said it was hard to give the exact numbers, but the thefts were putting a hefty dent in health board coffers that could otherwise be spent on offering more people more operations.
"We can't put a figure on the actual loss, but we know it's in the tens of thousands of dollars each month," she said.
The hospital goes through about 5 million pieces of linen annually and 44 tonnes of items get laundered for the health board every month. Spotless, the company contracted to handle linen services, owns and hires out each item to the board.
There are 846 linen storage locations throughout the hospital and usually one or two linen cupboards located in each ward - although these mostly now have locks on them to keep the thieves out.
Security manager Dean Ria said the hospital's staff were slowly becoming more vigilant and more stair dancers and light-fingered hospital visitors were being caught in the act.
A recent problem was people stealing hand-sanitising liquid, which has a high alcohol content. "It can bring a form of intoxication . . . we stopped one gentleman with 23 bottles of hand sanitiser in his backpack," Mr Ria said.
"The hospital campus is a huge and ever-changing place. We have around 7000 people on site every day and even if just 1 per cent of those people have criminal intent, that's still 70 people."
The hospital had an excellent relationship with the police and a constable was on site for two days of every week, Mr Ria said. There were 25 security officers who patrolled the campus at varying times of the day and night. There were now more than 200 security cameras throughout the hospital, a big increase from the 30 they had in 2008.
"It's an ongoing war of attrition, but we are winning it. It's all about making the staff aware that these people can prey on them and to keep their valuables locked away. Like the police say, if you remove the temptation you decrease the opportunity."
Information obtained under the Official Information Act shows that up to $200,000 worth of hospital gowns and towels go missing from lower North Island hospitals each year.
More than 2600 gowns were taken, lost, or needed to be discarded from district health boards in Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu, Whanganui and Taranaki.
Allied Laundry in Palmerston North supplies gowns and towels to the five health boards. The gowns cost $18.56 to replace, with its total annual bill being $48,664.32.
Towels, too, have a high turnover at the hospitals - every year 6800 vanish or are discarded and, at $5.24 each, cost the health boards $35,632.
Capital and Coast and Hutt Valley district health boards spent $120,000 a year replacing gowns and towels.
That figure was so much higher than neighbouring health boards because major surgeries were performed at Wellington Hospital and Hutt Hospitals, and the hospitals were generally much busier, a spokesman said.
Some patients would have taken the gowns, but others might have been too ill to change clothes when discharged, or had their clothing cut off them in A&E, Hutt Valley District Health Board chairwoman Virginia Hope said.
Allied Laundry chairman Ken Foot doubted many gowns were taken maliciously. "A gown is not a particularly attractive item. Most people would be much more comfortable in their own pyjamas once they get home."
Gowns were replaced at a rate of 18 per cent a year, and 16 per cent for towels, Mr Foot said. Some were discarded after being used to mop up blood or vomit after surgery.
"Someone will decide it's just too gross to use for laundry again."
Laundry bags were sometimes mistaken for hazardous waste and destroyed, said Jeff Small, Midcentral DHB's group manager of commercial support services. It was impossible to know how many were stolen or mistakenly taken by patients, their families, or staff.
"It's difficult to know. We can only suspect."
- Waikato Times