GP practices are to be encouraged to adopt a new 03 telephone number or use a local geographic number for patients to contact them on.
Former health minister Lord Warner, who retired at the end of last month, wrote to primary care trust chief executives in December about the use of non-geographical 084 numbers by NHS services.
The letter states that Ofcom, the independent regulator for the UK communications industries, is to introduce a new 03 number from early this year. The country-wide number will be charged at geographical rates and can be included in any inclusive or low-cost call packages offered by landline or mobile phone companies. No revenue sharing will be permitted on 03 numbers.
Lord Warner instructs PCT chief exectuives to ensure that NHS dentists, opticians and GP practices and out-of-hours providers consider the best options for their patients “who should not have to pay over the odds to contact their local services.”
The letter states: “There has been no explicit requirement made by Ofcom for practices to adopt a 03 telephone number but this clearly has attractions.”
Lord Warner states that it is for individual practices to decide what is in their customers’ best interest but adds “normally this will mean the lowest cost per call to the patients (local geographic number or adopting a 03 number).”
The letter adds that any financial implications from action taken will have to be met from within existing resources. In 2005 the Department of Health banned GP practices and dentists from using national or premium rate lines (0870 or 0871) and made payments of £500 per practice to cover lost revenue. At that time it was suggested practices could move to 0844 or 0845 numbers which cost up to 5p per minute from a BT line.
When Ofcom announced the creation of the 03 numbers earlier last year it claimed that the numbers would enable organisations to offer consumers a single national point of contact without making additional charges for the service.
It added: “This should give consumers confidence about calling 03 and Ofcom expects public services and many others to view 03 numbers as more appropriate than chargeable 08 numbers.”