Concern over cost of phone calls to GPs

SOME GP surgeries are being criticised for using 0844 numbers for patients’ calls – and the town’s MP plans to raise the issue with the Department of Health.

Ten practices in Crawley are using 0844 numbers instead of the local area code and patients claim this is escalating prices for mobile phone users trying to book appointments.

A spokesman for NHS Sussex said the cost of using 0844 numbers was the same as a local call for people using a land line.

But Vanessa Kirby, from Salvington Road, Bewbush said she was charged £3.90 for a four-minute, six-minute and 15-minute phone call to Gossops Green Medical Centre from her land line. She blamed the amount of time patients are left on hold for the escalating prices.

She said: “I have found my telephone bill and it cost me £3.90 for three phone calls. I think it works out as £1.68 for 15 minutes and I think that is because these days you have to hold for a long time.

“It is very expensive. You really don’t want to get ill these days.

“People are phoning up to speak to someone, but the thought must be going through their heads that can they really afford to hang on and speak to someone? I have to say when I am hanging on for a long time, I do put the phone down because I don’t know if I can afford to wait.”

In Horsham Francis Szilagi said he spent £1.60 a minute on his mobile phone to his surgery.

In 2008 the Observer launched a campaign calling for surgeries to axe pricey numbers after patients found they were paying 40p per minute from mobile phones.

MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, said: “I find this incredibly frustrating. The Observer and residents have been running this campaign for several years to get GP surgeries to only charge a local rate.

“It is unacceptable. The Department of Health are quite clear that GP surgeries should charge no more than the local rate. I know some say the 0844 number does charge the local rate but I know this is not the case for all. I do think people contacting their doctor should not be a money spinner for the surgery.

“I am happy to write to the Department of Health to raise this issue.”

The Department of Health has advised the NHS to avoid using 0844 numbers. Surgeries using the number instead of standard geographical ones have been told to offer a call back service.

A spokeswoman for NHS Sussex said none of the practices were in breach of contract by having an 0844 telephone number.

She added: “While some of our practices use non-geographical telephone numbers – often beginning 0844 – patients are charged a maximum of the local or geographical rate. We are assured that all our practices which use an 0844 number offer a call-back system and we regularly audit this.

“We have made practices aware of alternative telephone systems to the 0844 number and continue to encourage them to consider these alternatives as their contract term ends.

“We take our responsibility on this matter very seriously and are working with our practices to review what steps, over and above the contractual requirements, can be taken to ensure there are no barriers to patients contacting their GP practice.”