Updated guidance from the Department of Health says that hospitals in England should allow a more liberal use of mobile phones. In fact, many hospitals have already relaxed their prohibitions on the use of mobiles. But this new guidance is still welcome, not least because it should drive another nail into the coffin of the extortionate Patientline (now Hospedia) phone system.
NHS managers have long resisted allowing greater mobile phone use in hospitals, citing the potential annoyance to other patients. It is certainly true that the last thing a convalescent needs is someone in the neighbouring bed endlessly shouting into a phone. But if there is a disturbance, there is no reason why ward matrons cannot put a stop to it. A bit of applied common sense should minimise any disruption.
The ban was an unpalatable merger of the outmoded nannying ethos of the NHS with modern commercial gouging. Not for the first time, patients ended up with the worst of both worlds. Yet while it is good to see this ban dismantled, we should remember that it is by no means the only unfairness inflicted on NHS patients. Just as egregious is the manner of charging for hospital parking. This is expensive, inconvenient and adds to the stress of patients and their families. From the perspective of cancer patients and others who need to make frequent visits to a hospital for treatment it feels like sheer vindictiveness.
The Department of Health points to schemes to enable those on low incomes to avoid the charges, but hospital staff are often loath to advertise these to patients. Nor can we ignore the fact that parking charges add up to a large revenue stream, earning several NHS trusts more than £1m a year.
It is reasonable to encourage people to take public transport rather than drive. But hospital visits are one of the few areas of life where using a car could be said to be a necessity, rather than a choice. The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have abolished hospital parking charges. It would not bankrupt the NHS for the Government to do the same in England. And if ministers want a straightforward, popular way to help patients, they have the answer at their fingertips.