Tuesday, April 10, 2007


I don’t know if you’ve been in Hospital recently, but, if you haven’t, believe me, it’s a stressful experience. Ignoring the fact that there’s a man with a very sharp knife waiting for you, and that to minimise your litigious potential to them, they insist on telling you that your chances of survival are of the same order as playing Russian Roulette with a 12 chambered revolver, and the fact that, as soon as you manage to get to sleep, they throw the lights on, Guantanamo Bay style, to wake you up, and feed you food that you’d think twice about giving to a pet you didn’t like much, there’s always the telephones.

When you settle into your bed, you are faced with a Startrek style screen, which you are told is your lifeline with the outside world. It has a personal TV screen, a phone, some games and probably a lot more which, because you're ill, you can’t be bothered to find out about. They inform you that you cannot use your mobile phone “because it interferes with the equipment on the ward” so you are condemned to use the phone on this screen, since they have eliminated the Ward's Public Pay Phone, for reasons you can probably work out for yourself.

A Company called Patientline runs these things, and it seems they have a vice-like grip throughout the NHS. They have apparently installed 75,000 of these in over 150 hospitals, and run the system like a military operation. In another of the hugely successful, good old New Labour/NHS computer projects we have come to love and admire, some seven years ago they won a contract to put these screens into Hospitals to integrate doctor’s access to computerised patient’s records, allow electronic meal ordering, electronic real-time drug prescription and ordering of patient X-rays, as well as providing patients with entertainment and telephone services.

You can probably guess the next bit – the medical IT side of the process is still not working, so there is little or no payment going from the NHS to Patientline to recoup their £160million investment, so the only way the company can recover its outlay and make money, is to soak the patient. And they are about to be pushed even further under water.

The costs for this service are about to be raised by 160% according to the Newspaper. The Government, bless their cotton socks, maintain that a lifeline from a patient’s family and friends outside “is a luxury, and should not be funded by the taxpayer.” So, guess who pays the costs?

If you ring in on a landline to find out if a patient is still with us, you will be charged 49p per minute in peak time to talk to them. A 3 minute call from a Mobile phone to one of these Patientline machines will cost the caller £2.37p, and if you are stupid enough to ring out from your Hospital bed to a UK landline using one of these machines, you will be charged 78p for a 3 minute call.

The real solution here seems simple. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) conducted tests on mobile phones a couple of years ago, and concluded that “Only 4% of (hospital) devices suffered interference from mobile phones at a distance of one metre, with less than 0.1% showing serious effects.” Why not get the manufacturers of the 0.1% of equipment with a problem, to modify it and screen it in such a way as to reduce the 0.1% to zero. Then, we could all use our mobile phones to our heart’s content, making a huge improvement to the patient’s well-being – or am I being silly in still thinking that that the patient is No.1 on a Hospital’s agenda? Or alternatively, tell us which particular makes of phone the Doctors and Consultants use as they go on their rounds, and we will all pick one of those when we next go to Carphone Warehouse for an upgrade.

A combination of these two fixes will sort the problem out just like that. The Government can then do a deal with Patientline to pay them the revenues they expected to get, and, had the Government managed to deliver the IT Project on time, would now be receiving (Pigs/Wings/Fly). The elegant result here would be that the people causing the problem would then face the pain of paying for their failure.

Except of course, it’s our money they’d be using.

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