Patientline has said it will suspend new installations in hospitals pending the outcome of an Ofcom inquiry into complaints about pricing of calls and competitive practices.
Ofcom, the independent telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, has announced that it has started an investigation today into prices charged to patients by Patientline and another healthcare communications provider, Premier Managed Payphones, for receiving incoming calls.
The two companies provide phones and bedside entertainment systems to patients during their stay in hospital. A spokesperson for Ofcom confirmed to E-Health Insider that the investigation into was prompted by user complaints.
As well as charges for incoming calls of up to 49p per minute, said a bulletin released by Ofcom, "consumers have also complained about the duration of the recorded message that callers are required to listen to at the start of each call, which also attracts these charges."
The investigation will also concentrate on the length and the exclusivity of the contracts that NHS organisations have signed with Patientline and Premier Managed Payphones.
Ofcom declined to comment further on the investigation while it was still underway, but stressed that regular updated bulletins would be available on its website.
In a statement released by Patientline, the company expressed confidence that it would be cleared by the investigation, but would stop new installations of systems in the UK until Ofcom’s findings are published.
"Patientline will co-operate fully with Ofcom on this investigation, which the board believes will vindicate the terms of the licences and contracts required by the NHS, as well as Patientline’s charges, which were specified in its licence agreement with the NHS."
"Although confident of the outcome of the Ofcom investigation, the board considers it prudent at least to defer commencement of new installations at UK hospitals until the position has been clarified."
A spokesperson for NHS Estates told E-Health Insider: "We have worked with Ofcom and we will continue to work with them througout the investigation."
Both companies supply the entertainment and phone services to NHS organisations free of charge, recouping costs for the services and installations from the users.
Premier supply phone services to nine NHS organisations, including Homerton Hospital in east London and Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Those wishing to contact patients dial premium-rate 0700 ‘personal’ numbers or the extension of the patient.
Patientline, which says it incurs "heavy capital costs" of around £1m per installation, is considering expanding its bedside phone and entertainment services into other areas such as patient surveys and food ordering in order to help recoup the cost.
Ofcom, which was formed in the Communications Act 2003, independently regulates all telecommunications and broadcasting. It says part of its remit is to further the interests of citizens and consumers in the communications market.
Ofcom’s powers include being able to fine companies that infringe the law a maximum of 10% of their income, or alternatively forcing organisations to agree to legally-binding frameworks.
E-Health Insider has invited Premier to comment on Ofcom’s inquiry.