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England is catching up with Scotland and Wales in liberalising mobile phone use in hospitals, a mere five years after it was established that such use didn't present a significant risk to medical equipment.

The guidance comes from the Department of Health and states that outside intensive care, and specialist baby units, mobile phones should be allowed - though the final decision will be up to local trusts.

Having established that mobile phones won't interfere with the vast majority of medical equipment, the argument comes down to the more prevalent privacy and decency concerns. Camera phones could present privacy issues, but of greater concern is the threat to common decency now we can't expect polite behaviour any more.

As Nigel Edwards, director of policy from the NHS Confederation, told the BBC, what concerns hospital managers is "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."

It seems unlikely such arguments will prevent mobile phone use spreading into hospital wards, but legislating against impolite behaviour is always difficult. While the news may dent the profits of Patientline, most patients will relish the opportunity to share their condition with friends and relatives. ®

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