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Hospital phone charges 'extortionate' say patients

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Nine in ten patients say the cost of using bedside phone systems in hospital are "extortionate" and that prices must come down.

While many of the patients quizzed welcomed the convenience of the system, many said the charges for incoming calls were "exorbitant".

A survey of 1,200 patients and visitors found deep resentment to the high cost of using bedside phones in hospital with some people running up bills of hundreds of pounds to stay in touch.

In other cases patients were left isolated while in hospital because people were reluctant to call them due to high charges.

Eighty-eight per cent of those surveyed believed the cost of calling was either expensive or very expensive and called on NHS Trusts to slash costs.

The most expensive charges - which apply to more than 100 hospitals where Patientline operates its services - cost 39p a minute for off peak calls and 49p a minute at all other times for inbound calls.

The survey was carried out by the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health (CPPIH), which was set up in 2003 to ensure that people are involved in decision making about health and health services in England.

Sharon Grant, head of the CPPIH, said the findings provide evidence to back up what patients have been saying for some time.

"They (patients) want to see the cost of incoming charges reduced and more areas opened up in hospitals for them to use their mobile phones. This information can't be ignored and the public will expect ministers to respond to the concerns we are raising on behalf of patients. "

Earlier this year telecoms regulator Ofcom called on the Department of Health (DoH) to carry out a review into the cost of phoning patients in hospital. The review stems from an investigation launched by Ofcom last summer, amid allegations that people were being ripped off for telephoning patients in hospital.

Closing its probe into whether these charges were "excessive", Ofcom said that its investigation had "identified that high call prices are a result of a complex web of government policy and agreements between the providers, the NHS and individual NHS Trusts" and called on the DoH to carry out a review of charges.

The CPPIH hopes that the results of its patient survey will be used as part of that review.

In a statement, Patientline said that it "fully acknowledges concerns raised about our incoming call charges".

"We have long wanted to reduce the cost of incoming charges, which are currently being reviewed by the review group set up by Department of Health. Outgoing calls from the bedside cost much less - 10p per minute," it said. ®

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