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Telephone charges paid by relatives, friends ''exorbitant''.

Written by: Staff

London, May 15 : A report into the cost of telephoning patients at their beds in hospital today said the charges paid by relatives and friends were ''exorbitant''.

The study by patient representative forums called for reductions in the charges and for hospitals to relax their blanket bans on personal mobile phone use.

In one case discovered by the survey of 1,250 patients, the wife of a Wigan bakery worker ran up a bill of 270 pounds in just two weeks calling her husband while he was in hospital with gangrene earlier this year.

Brian McCracken, 59, said cable company Telewest had cut off his home phone to stop his wife Anne running up an even higher bill.

He said Telewest had told him her calls were being charged at as much as 1.50 pounds a minute, although Patientline, the provider of the bedside phone service, says its top rate is 49 pence a minute.

''Whilst many of the patients we spoke to welcome the convenience of the system, this was countered by a very strong belief that the charges were exorbitant,'' said Derek Easton of the East Kent Hospitals Patient and Public Involvement Forum.

''While evidence has shown that mobile phones do not cause problems with medical equipment, hospital Trusts often prohibit their use giving the patient no choice but to use the expensive bedside systems,'' he added.

The Department of Health is due next month to complete a review of the charges paid when calling bedside phone units following an investigation by telecoms watchdog the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

Under an NHS-led scheme hospitals have installed bedside phone and television units throughout wards, mainly through two providers, Patientline and Premier.

The units were installed at no cost to the hospitals, with the providers required to earn back their investment by charging for their use.

Ofcom found that the high charges for inbound calls were a result of ''a complex web of Government policy and agreements between the providers and the NHS'', and called on both sides to come up with a fairer pricing scheme.

Patientline, the largest provider with phones in 155 hospitals, said it has yet to make a profit on the service and wants to reduce the cost of inbound calls.

Mobile clause

Ofcom also found that all the contracts with Patientline and Premier included a clause in which hospitals agreed to prohibit the use of mobiles on their premises, ''in circumstances where it is lawful and there is proper reason to do so''.

Most hospitals in England ban the use of mobile phones within their premises, on the grounds that they can interfere with sensitive medical equipment.

But some are relaxing their policy in the light of recent guidance from the government's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

The Countess of Chester Hospital in Cheshire, northwest England, has allowed mobiles to be used in public areas such as corridors and waiting rooms since March.

''The latest advice we had is that there is a very low risk in relation to modern day phones and them interfering with medical equipment,'' said Mike Phelan, the hospital's director of operations.

''Quite often you have patients in clinics who probably need to phone home quickly to get decisions made, and not to use mobile phones in those situations seems silly.''


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