The service was launched in the autumn for corporate customers. But from this summer private subscribers aged over 60 will also be able to call. A group of pensioners who have Bupa cover as part of their pension package will use the service next month in a pilot project.
Patients will be able to call a team of nurses based in Salford, who will talk about clinical conditions, offer advice about how to get a second opinion, and co- ordinate existing local services to support patients when they return from hospital.
The hidden agenda is that Bupa would like to see patients take day surgery where possible and leave hospital as soon as it is medically advisable, rather than stay in for social reasons.
This will save the company money while delivering the care that patients want. There are 80,000 people already registered under the Bupa Care Support Service via corporate schemes. Initial research indicates that those who use the service have treatment which costs pounds 1,500 less than the average cost of treatment for those not using the lines.
PPP has been running another experimental scheme, with Pilkington Glass, for two years. Employees are treated in a hospital where there is a nurse who acts as an intermediary between the consultants and the patients. She also checks that the medical staff stick to pre-agreed medical protocols.
For instance, a patient ought to be discharged when fit, and not allowed to prolong the stay because it is more convenient.
David Clarke, head of customer services at PPP, said that in some circumstances, home nursing might be arranged to save a patient staying in a hospital bed unnecessarily. The service is now open to all PPP's corporate customers.
The company's personal customers have access to three other services: premium telephone lines featuring a selection of pre-recorded tapes on a range of 50 different medical complaints; a helpline giving advice about benefits, local hospitals and day surgery; and a nurse helpline on which generalised advice about medical conditions can be sought.
Norwich Union has a 24- hour medical helpline for its Personal Care customers, but this only offers advice about the extent of the insurance policy. A separate helpline staffed by nurses gives generalised medical advice but not any specific diagnoses.
WPA also has a telephone line but does not promote it. Julian Stainton, the managing director, said: 'We don't think we should interfere in the clinical process. There are great dangers.'
Bupa is having a spring sale. Anyone joining a personal scheme before the end of June will get one month's free membership. A single 30-year-old could save between pounds 12 and pounds 66.
For every 10 people enrolled in a company scheme, an extra person will be covered free for a year. Companies that enrol fewer people will receive a pounds 200 discount on the first year.
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