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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Automated GP calls rile patients
By Graham Satchell
BBC News

Sue Davis
Sue Davis is angry about being charged
Sue Davis is not happy. She is reading her phone bill and looking at cost of the calls to her local GP.

"You would expect your doctor's surgery around the corner to be a local call," she said.

"Those calls should actually appear on this page with all the zeros. It shouldn't cost me anything."

Sue lost her leg to cancer and often has to call her GP.

She is annoyed because her surgery has changed its phone line to an 0844 number.

It would be more honest if they sent the hat round and asked for contributions from their patients
Sue Davis

Sue gets all her local calls free, but 0844 numbers don't count as local calls so she is paying 5p a minute.

So why are more and more GP's moving to 0844 numbers?

'Speeds up access'

It is to avoid the dreaded engaged tone.

With an 0844 number GPs get an automated telephone system called "Surgery Line".

It has a recorded message which helps to filter and direct calls.

Sim Kumar
We don't have the engaged tone and that's got to be a benefit for everyone
Sim Kumar
Coldharbour Surgery

It allows patients to cancel appointments by leaving a message.

Doctors who use it say it speeds up access.

Sim Kumar, the business manager at Coldharbour Surgery in Bexleyheath, south east London, put in "Surgery Line" at his practice in July.

"We don't have the engaged tone anymore," he said.

"Yes, there is music when people are waiting but we don't have the engaged tone and that's got to be a benefit for everyone."

Paid for by patients

NEG, the company behind Surgery Line, supply the hardware for the system for free.

The system is paid for - over time - by the charge paid by patients.

0844 numbers are so-called revenue sharing: Part of the charge goes to the telephone company, part goes to the GP.

Sim Kumar said: "When patients call the surgery, 2p of that call is coming back to us to help us fund the system.

"I would hope the extra cost which they are paying is not so detrimental and is far outweighed by the better service they are provided."

But should patients be paying for their GP's phone system?

Dr Howard Stoate
Passing costs on to patients ... is simply wrong
Dr Howard Stoate
MP and GP

Howard Stoate is an MP who also works as a GP.

At his surgery they have also fitted a whiz bang new system. But they paid for it themselves.

"It's a simple point of principle" said Dr Stoate.

"GPs should provide better services, which is why the government pays GPs quite well to provide these services.

"They should not be passing those costs on to patients because that is simply wrong."

The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, says many GPs were forced to take the Surgery Line system by local health authorities who refused to pay for upgraded phone systems themselves.

The government is allowing GPs to use 0844 numbers.

But the Department of Health said patients should not be charged more than the cost of a local call to contact their doctor.

In time it said GPs should start using the new 0300 numbers, which are charged at a local rate.

But for Sue Davis getting patients to pay for their doctors' phone system is the thin end of the wedge.

"What next?" she said.

"Will they charge us for car parking? It would be more honest if they sent the hat round and asked for contributions from their patients."

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