Lynn Eaton

Patients at a west London hospital are to have their own customer services department, similar to those run by major commercial companies, with its own freephone advice line.

St Mary's hospital in Paddington has launched a team of seven people to handle patients' queries - anything from changing the time of an appointment to registering a formal grievance about the standard of service received.

The phone service, known as CareLine, will be available from 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday, with an answering machine the rest of the time. But for patients who prefer face-to-face service, the department is based in the Queen Elizabeth wing of St Mary's hosptial.

The department will also serve other hospitals in the same NHS trust, including St Charles, the Samaritan hospital for Women and the Western Eye hospital.

The customer services department is the brainchild of Dave Brook, a former nurse and now director of marketing for the trust. Mr Brook worked for cable television after leaving nursing, where he set up a customer-service department. Since returning to the NHS, he has decided to do the same for the health service.

The system is quite unlike anything

offered in the past, he says. Before, hospitals tended to get phone calls and requests for information but did not deal with them very well. But the new department offers a centralised service which should be able

to answer any queries from patients and relatives, according to Mr Brook.

The team will offer advice on transport to the hospital, visiting times, what to bring with you for a treatment and what a treatment may involve.

And there will also be a specially trained nurse to offer advice to relatives when a patient dies. This would include bereavement counselling and practical support with funeral arrangements.

Staff will also offer help when complaints arise. Although complaints can already be made direct to nurses or doctors on the ward, some patients may prefer to speak to someone less closely involved with their care.

The freephone line will also enable patients to cancel appointments easily, saving the hospital money and enabling other patients to take their appointment instead.

'Before, people would ring up and often get a busy tone,' said Mr Brook. 'If we can encourage them to ring with a freephone number, it makes us much more

efficient and helps us to give a better service to patients.'

The service, which has been running on a trial basis since April, is opened officially on Friday by actress Jenny Seagrove, star of A Woman of Substance.

Despite the scheme's initial success, there have been some unusual calls - one man wanted to book tickets for the theatre.

But many callers ring the line because they have no idea where else to go for help, from anything to getting a false limb replacement, to finding a GP.

CareLine is on 0800 716131