Patients should pay no more to call their GP or other NHS services than they would to call a geographic (01 or 02) number, the Department of Health (DH) has said.
The new ruling on the use of expensive phone numbers in the NHS comes after a lengthy consultation by the Department of Health into the use of expensive phone numbers such as 0844 by GP surgeries and other NHS services.
Which? and patients say no to high NHS call costs
In its response to the consultation, which ended in March 2009, Which? highlighted consumer concerns about the high costs associated with calling 084 phone numbers. Which? stated that ‘patients and the public should not have to pay anything other than low cost call rates in order to access NHS services.’
You can find out more about the cost of calling different phone numbers in the Which? guide on how to avoid 0870 and premium-rate numbers.
When Which? asked its members about the use of expensive phone numbers in the NHS in April 2009, more than 90% of the 2,071 survey respondents agreed that GP surgeries are a local service and shouldn’t be allowed to use phone numbers that cost more than a local call.
At present, the use of 0844 and 0845 numbers is widespread in the NHS. For example, many GP surgeries use Surgery Line, a telephone system which promises more access and efficiency, featuring call routing and a queuing system.
However, to contact a GP surgery that uses Surgery Line you must call an 0844 phone number rather than a local geographic (01 or 02) number. 0844 phone numbers usually cost more to call than 01 or 02 numbers from a landline (up to 5 pence per minute at all times of day) and can be very expensive (up to 40 pence per minute) to call from your mobile phone.
A stop to costly calls to your GP
The Department of Health is not banning the use of 084 numbers outright as it is concerned that simply banning 084 numbers might lead to the use of other premium rate numbers instead.
Instead it is putting rules and supporting guidance to the NHS in place to ensure that patients do not have to pay more to call NHS numbers than they would to call a geographic number, regardless of the actual number they dial.
However NHS Direct is likely to retain its 0845 number for now as it raised concerns over possible public confusion if it moved to a new number in the short term and then potentially had to switch again if the Department of Health implements a new three-digit number for non-emergency healthcare access, particularly given current concerns about swine flu.
Which? health policy adviser Claire Lilley says: ‘Which? has long said that patients shouldn’t have to pay high charges when they call the NHS, so the proposed limit on call costs is good news.
‘We’d like to see phone providers ensuring that the numbers used by NHS services are covered by inclusive call packages, so that people really are paying no more than they would if they were phoning a normal geographic number.
‘Alternatively the NHS could switch to 01 or 02 codes, or the 03 code that Ofcom introduced last year, to ensure that patients get a fair deal.’
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