Fears grow for Patientline as shares halve and losses rise

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Patientline shares almost halved yesterday after the provider of televisions and telephones to hospital patients admitted that its losses more than doubled over the past year.

They plunged 8.25p to a record low of 9.5p, valuing the ailing company at a little more than £16.4m. At their peak in early 2002, Patientline shares were valued at more than 230p.

Geoff White, the new Patientline chairman, blamed the company's £24.7m loss before tax but after exceptional items for the year to the end of March on ward closures and empty beds. That, he said, had cut the number of Patientline's terminals in use, while an investigation into its charges by the telecommunications watchdog discouraged hospitals from buying them.

Ofcom, which found in January that high incoming call charges were not a result of overpricing by Patientline and its rivals, is slated to make its final recommendations by the end of the month.

Relatives calling a patient on one of 75,000 Patientline phones at bedsides are charged 49p a minute at peak time. Patients pay 10p a minute to call home.

Mr White said: "As you are probably aware, the group has been through a very challenging period, involving not only difficult trading conditions but also an investigation by Ofcom into the level of charges for incoming calls and whether its agreements with NHS trusts infringed competition law."

Patientline's average daily revenue per terminal fell 7 per cent to £1.73 and is still slipping.

The company is also saddled with £85.7m of debt to a syndicate of banks led by Royal Bank of Scotland. However, it is thought able to meet interest and payments, for now at least.

Mr White joined Patientline in early April from another company on the critical list, the healthcare software provider iSoft. He said then that his job was to "restore confidence" among Patientline shareholders.

His appointment followed the departure of the then chairman Derek Lewis, the former head of the prison service, who was forced off the board two days before rebel shareholders had planned to oust him at an extraordinary meeting.

The rebellion was led by the boutique investment bank Shore Capital, which together with its clients owns about 17 per cent of the company. Mr Lewis was removed as chief of the prison service in 1995 by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard.