James Daley: The sickening cost of a hospital service

I was reminded what a rip-off hospital entertainment systems are this week, when my mother was taken ill for a few days. Although it's great for patients to have bedside phones and televisions, the cost of using them is extortionate. For people making calls to patients in the hospital, the prices are even higher.

To call from a landline, it costs 39p a minute off-peak and 49p a minute on-peak (and much more from a mobile) – and there's no way of escaping paying for at least a two-minute call, as you're forced to listen to a lengthy introductory message. It's such a blatant scam that if I wasn't so angry every time I used the service, I would have found it quite funny. First of all, the recorded message is spoken in an unnecessarily slow voice – a bit like playing a 45rpm record at 33rpm (apologies for the rather outdated analogy). Secondly, the message includes useless tips such as "Please remember that the person you are calling may be with medical staff or have difficulty reaching the phone, so please be patient."

It should be up to the caller to decide how many rings they hang on for before giving up. The reason they want you to wait as long as possible, of course, is that by the time the phone starts ringing, you're already being charged by the minute.

I imagine that the reason these systems are so expensive is that the NHS had nothing much to do with them. A private company – Patientline – developed and installed the systems, and claimed that the reason it was charging so much was because it needed to recoup these initial costs. This may be so – but surely they could have charged less, and recouped their costs more slowly. As it stands, they are exploiting families when they are at their most vulnerable.

Bizarrely – in spite of milking their users for tens of pounds every day – Patientline went bust at the start of last year, and was bought out by another company, Hospedia, run by a former Vodafone executive who has promised to slash call charges. So far, however, there's no sign of these services being any better value than they were under their former ownership.

With a bit of luck, the Hospedia model will soon be run out of business. At the start of the year, the health minister Ben Bradshaw announced a relaxation of the rules which ban mobile phones in hospitals – meaning patients will no longer have any need to pay the rip-off prices charged by Hospedia's systems.

Although opponents of the move claim that the constant bleating of mobile phone ringtones will be detrimental to recuperating patients, there's no reason why wards can't insist that all phones are kept on silent.

As for Hospedia, who knows how they'll deal with this potentially fatal assault on their business model. No doubt they'll hike charges for using the television, and will double call charges, so that those who forget their mobiles are forced to pay as much as possible. To prevent that happening, the regulators need to intervene. After all, a business that prays on the ill and frail is not something this country should support.

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