Anyone who's spent time on a hospital ward in the past five years or so knows of the Catch-22 that awaits in the form of bedside TV, internet access and phone service. It's convenient, but so incredibly expensive you end up wishing it wasn't there tempting you to use it.
In response to the outcry about charges for such services, Patientline this week announced lower costs for phone calls. Calls now cost 10p a minute, rather than the 30p they were before, and there is now a minimum charge of 10p (it was 20p minimum before). Even so, it's a hugely expensive way of staying in touch, especially for those resigned to extended stays in hospital.
Last year, I spent significant sums calling to check up on the elderly lady I'd taken under my wing and who unfortunately spent well over a month in hospital with a broken ankle. So I was less than pleased to note that while Patientline has reduced call charges for patients, if you want to call a friend in hospital, it's still 39p a minute off-peak and 49p at weekends and 8am to 6pm.
My £45 phone bill was nothing compared to poor Helena's, however. First, the hospital provided her with the wrong number, so having called concerned friends with a contact number and news of where she was, she then spent a good £5 or so more calling everyone to tell them the right number.
Even then, the number didn't actually go live until half a day after she'd been admitted to the ward and issued the service, so anyone calling Helena's number to see how she was was instead told it was the bedside phone for a Mr Someone Else-Entirely. Not Patientline's fault in this case, but an oversight that still racked up significant amounts for them.
You see, whenever you dial in to see how your friend or relative is doing, you have to listen to an announcement message that takes up a good three minutes of airtime. At 49p a minute, it's pricey enough, but if you’re calling from a mobile it's even more expensive and the charges seriously stack up.
Given that part of the Patientline package is web access, surely it would make more sense all round for VoIP phone calls to be offered. Patientline could still make money - no one would mind if they charged a bit over the odds for VoIP provision, say 1p or 1.5p a minute rather than the 10p a minute it's just been cut to. There would be no need to charge a connection fee either, since VoIP doesn't work on a PSTN telephone exchange system.
Patientline has every right to charge a certain amount for its services. Earlier this week one of the company’s spokespeople explained to BBC Radio Five Live listeners that Patientline pays for its bedside TV, intenet and phoneline modules to be installed on each ward. It’s a commercial organisation and it has a right to make money, but there are cheaper ways of enabling patients confined to their hospital beds to stay in touch with friends and family. The web access hardware Patientline has already installed could do that and do it so much more cost-effectively.