Patientline: entertainment on our sick beds

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The Independent Online

Whatever else happens to the NHS over the next few years, the Government is determined that we should all be entertained on our sick beds. By 2003, says the Department of Health, all British hospitals with more than 200 beds are to be equipped with individual entertainment systems for each patient, and only a handful of companies have latched on to this gigantic opportunity.

The leader in the narrow field is Slough-based Patientline, a £135m company which floated on the Alternative Investment Market in March this year, and is easily winning the battle for market share. The company has won an important licence to undertake the project, and has 15-year contracts to provide services in 56 hospitals in England.

Its product is a television-based system which will sit at hospital bedsides, and operate on a pay-as-you-go system. Like some in-flight entertainment systems, the service will offer 16 TV channels including sports and films, radio stations, hospital information and a phone line. A second-generation product will include internet access and emails.

"The key element behind our business plan is that none of the services costs the NHS anything," says the group's chief executive Jim Glover. "Judging by the number of hospitals that are taking up our product, I think we have got the formula right."

Mr Glover understands that the first wave, for completion within the next two years, involves 350 hospitals. One of the drawbacks of the system is that each hospital needs to devote space to a control room. But Mr Glover is confident he will soon have the technology to run the operation remotely.

Patientline pays for the installation of the equipment and, based on the hospitals it has already fitted out, estimates an average spend of between £750,000 to £1m on each institution, with each breaking even after three years. Patients will pay for services using a pre-paid swipe card, ensuring the administration for the whole scheme is kept out of the NHS's hands. There will be exemptions, but the average customer is expected to spend about £3 a day to watch films and sports.

Mr Glover predicts big things for Patientline. "Floating the company was the best thing we could have done. It has given us enough resources to roll this out to numerous institutions in a short period. Once everything is in place, we watch the money roll in."