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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006, 11:59 GMT
Review of bedside phone charges
Patientline entertainment system
Patientline provides bedside phone and TV systems
The Department of Health has been ordered to review the charges made to hospital patients for telephone calls.

Communications regulator Ofcom investigated the issue after complaints that charges were far too high.

It has recommended a review of all aspects of the installation and operation of bedside telephone and entertainment systems in hospitals.

The Department of Health said use of bedside phone systems was widespread and popular.

However, the suppliers said they would welcome any changes which meant that they did not have to pass their overheads directly on to patients.

We have long wanted to reduce the burden currently placed on the relatives and friends of patients in funding this service
Derek Lewis

Ofcom launched an investigation last July into charges levied by a group of private companies, particularly for incoming calls to patient's bedside phones.

Relatives and patients had complained that these calls could exceed the cost of dialling Australia.

In most cases the prices charged by the companies Patientline and Premier for calls to hospital patients were 49p per minute peak and 39p per minute off-peak.

Ofcom found high call prices were a result of a "complex" web of government policy and agreements between the providers, the NHS and individual NHS Trusts.

The Department of Health, Patientline and Premier have agreed to investigate the concerns.

Patient satisfaction

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We have to remember that patients and relatives who do not wish to use the additional services offered through the Patient Power system can continue to use ward based payphones and the main switchboard.

"An independent survey commissioned by NHS Estates of over 300 patients and nearly 100 staff at six major acute hospitals found that 95% of patients had used the services that have to be paid for and 88% were satisfied with the service offered by the system.

"Patients said the most important reason for using the system was to make phone calls without having to ask a member of staff for help or go to a public payphone."

The companies supplying communication systems negotiate directly with each NHS Trust using a Concession Agreement drawn up by NHS Estates.

Big costs

They are responsible for the cost of installation, and day-to-day operating costs, and in return can charge patients directly for use of their services.

The cost of installing a system at a large acute hospital is estimated to be around 1million.

The Department of Health spokesman said that typically a supplier does not see a return on its investment for around six or seven years.

Derek Lewis, chairman of Patientline, said the company's charges had been dictated by the structure of the government's programme.

He said: "We have long wanted to reduce the burden currently placed on the relatives and friends of patients in funding this service.

"Ofcom has concluded that providers have been forced to turn to incoming call revenues in order to recover their costs of installation and operation.

"We will continue to work with the Department of Health to secure a more appropriate method of funding for this important NHS service."

Premier issued a statement echoing the Patientline position.

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