Many new hospital buildings have poor mobile phone reception, says the BMA
Hospitals in England should allow a more liberal use of mobile phones where they do not interfere with equipment or privacy, the government has said.
The updated Department of Health guidance comes five years after technical experts said hospital-wide bans on mobile phones were not needed.
Health minister Ben Bradshaw said patients wanted access to their phones.
NHS managers stressed patients' rights to peace and quiet should not be violated by ring tones and text alerts.
The British Medical Association said there were also strong arguments for doctors to have mobiles and other devices, to improve communication and care.
Areas where phones should not be used should be clearly indicated so that patients and staff are fully aware, the new guidance says.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency advises that mobiles should be kept out of areas with sensitive medical equipment, as in intensive care and specialist baby units.
In its May 2007 guidance the Department of Health had suggested mobile phone use should also be banned on wards and in operating theatres.
But a spokeswoman said the new guidance was less prescriptive to "convey the Department's aspiration of more liberal use of mobile phones in hospitals."
Michael Summers, vice-chairman of the Patients' Association, said mobile phones only affect equipment in the most specialist areas.
"There may be some areas, in certain operating theatres, where there is machinery but of course if you were having an operation you're not going to be using the telephone," he said.
"In the average ward there is absolutely no reason why you can't use it... provided that you're discreet and that you don't upset someone close to you."
Many trusts have already relaxed their rules, but some have kept a ban over fears that patient privacy could be breached by the latest camera phones.
It is up to trusts to ultimately decide where mobile phones are and are not allowed. The same applies in Scotland and Wales where more liberal use is already advocated.
Nigel Edwards, director of policy from the NHS Confederation - which represents managers - said: "Any change to current policy on mobile phone use should take account of patients need for privacy as well as the fact that contact with relatives and friends can in many cases make a stay in hospitals less stressful and worrying.
"However the last thing we want to do is to make hospitals more stressful than they need to be because of the noise of annoying ring tones or the kind of loud phone conversations that already plague much of everyday life.
"Doctors and nurses doing their rounds should not have to constantly wait for patients to finish phone calls and night-times on wards should not be disturbed by the chirruping of text messages.
"We need to ensure there is no free-for all and that policies supported by patients and staff are put in place such as quiet rooms and no mobile zones. There needs to be clarity on when mobile phones can be used and what visitors can do."
HAVE YOUR SAY
I was in a hospital before Christmas where visiting was banned because of the Norovirus. Without my mobile I could not have stayed in contact with home. I set it to "silent" though and used only texts so nobody was inconvenienced. I could not afford the cost of the bedside telephone.
Sally Anne, UK
Dr Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association said many newer hospital buildings had poor mobile phone signal reception and this could cause a potential risk to patient care if treatment was delayed due to impaired communication between healthcare workers via mobiles.
"It is important that the design and construction of any future newly-built or rebuilt hospitals permit good mobile phone reception."
However, some hospitals already have more relaxed rules over mobile phone use.
Bath's Royal United Hospital - in line with the new guidance - only bans phones where they can affect equipment, such as in high dependency wards.
Paediatrics matron Bev Boyd said the approach has been motivated by the importance people - especially the young - place on mobile phones.
"When being treated in hospital, their mobile phone becomes a lifeline."
Meanwhile, Scottish investigators have warned that mobile phones could spread hospital superbugs after their research found mobile handsets can harbour infections like MRSA.
Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien said: "Labour ministers are trying to take credit for this move, but it is they who have dithered for five long years as patients suffered.
"Patients and families alike have spent huge amounts of money keeping in touch with one another at a very stressful time in their lives.
"Whilst I am glad the Government has finally decided to allow mobile phones to be used in hospitals, ministers should be condemned for years of inaction, not congratulated."