Ofcom urges inquiry into NHS call costs

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The Independent Online

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, has ordered the Department of Health to review "all aspects" of the installation and running of bedside phones and TVs after a six-month investigation into the high cost of calls to hospital patients charged by Patientline.

Patientline shares surged 9.5p to 34p, their strongest day since the company floated in 2001, after the watchdog stopped well short of accusing Patientline of overpricing. Friends and relatives are charged as much as 49p a minute to phone patients in an NHS hospital, against a shade under 22p a minute charged to call Australia on a typical BT line. To watch television costs the sick about£1.70 per day.

But the regulator found the high prices for incoming calls stemmed from a "complex web of government policy and agreements between the providers [and] the National Health Service", not profiteering by Patientline and its rival Premier Managed Payphones.

Patientline, whose chairman is Derek Lewis, a former director general of the Prison Service, has installed 75,000 multimedia systems in wards at 156 hospitals at no cost to the NHS. Each installation costs the company about £1m, which can be recovered only through charges to those using its systems.

As part of the review, Patientline and Premier and the Department of Health will look into ways to cut bills for patients. Mr Lewis welcomed Ofcom's statement. He said: "We have long wanted to reduce the burden placed on the relatives and friends of patients in funding this service."

In November, the company said its losses had widened by 39 per cent over the first half of its year after the competition investigation exacerbated weaker trading.