Hospital call charges probeInvestigation into hospital call charges

18 January 2006

The Department of Health (DoH) has been told to carry out a review into sky-high charges for calling hospital patients.

The communications watchdog Ofcom has recommended health chiefs look into 'all aspects' of the installation and operation of bedside telephone and entertainment systems in hospitals.

Ofcom began its investigation last July, following consumers' complaints about the cost of calling relatives in hospital. The lines are operated by private companies, Patientline and Premier, and in most cases callers pay 49p a minute peak-time and 39p per minute off-peak. Outgoing calls are capped at 10p a minute.

Consumers also complained that a recorded message at the start of each call was too long and added to the charges. Ofcom says the DoH and the companies have already agreed to consider a 'skip the message' option to save time for repeat callers.

'Need to cut call costs'

The probe comes as MPs on the Health Select Committee consider charges that patients pay within the NHS, including those for using TVs and phones. They will also examine charges for dental and optical services and hospital car parking. Tomorrow the committee is due to start hearing evidence.

Sara Apps, Which? Health Campaigns Team Leader, said:' Ofcom has now passed the buck to the DoH without reaching a final conclusion. In our view, the DoH and the phone companies need to go much further than looking at ways to cut call times. They need to cut call costs.

'As Which? said in our evidence to the Health Select Committee, while patient services such as phone lines and car parking shouldn't take funding away from clinical services, they shouldn't be used to generate income. We hope that if the DoH and the phone-line companies fail to come up with a new package that addresses the high costs to friends and family then Ofcom will revisit this issue.'

Review group

Ofcom's investigation found that the high call prices are a result of a complex web of government policy and agreements between the providers, the NHS and individual NHS Trusts. The watchdog has now written to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, setting out its concerns and recommendations.

Ofcom said: ' As a consequence of Ofcom's investigation, the DoH, Patientline and Premier have committed to explore how they can offer communication services to hospital patients without charging such high prices for incoming calls.'

A DoH spokeswoman said: 'We welcome this useful Ofcom investigation and, as agreed, we will now form a review group to examine some of the issues raised. We have to remember that patients and relatives who do not wish to use the additional services offered through the...system can continue to use ward-based payphones and the main switchboard.'