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GPs in the United Kingdom are being urged to consider dropping the use of 0844 phone numbers for their practices, which campaigners say force patients to pay a premium rate for the calls.
Doctors' leaders, however, have hit back at the accusations, saying that GPs are not making a profit from the lines and that they have improved patients' access.
Concerns are growing about the extra costs to patients who contact practices that have switched their surgery phone numbers from local geographical codes to the 0844 code. These codes are more expensive, say patients' groups and the “Say No to 0870” website (http://saynoto870.com), which campaigns against the use of premium rate codes such as 0870, 0844, and 0845. The website has begun a petition to prevent the use of such numbers by general practices and out of hours GP services.
Campaigners say that it costs 5p (€0.07; $0.10) a minute from a British Telecom landline to call an 0844 phone number but as much as 35p a minute from a mobile phone.
Concerns about the cost of calls to doctors through systems that charged callers at premium rates were first raised two years ago. A health minister at the time, John Hutton, introduced regulations banning the use of two of the premium rate codes, 0870 and 090.
Dave Lindsay, a member of the public who contacted the BMJ on the subject, said: “I don't think GP surgeries should be using these numbers. They have banned the 0870 numbers, and they should go further and ban all the 084 type numbers.”
Mr Lindsay believes that at least 1200 practices now use the 0844 code.
“Whether it is a 0844 or 0845 code, it's costing more than a normal telephone call,” he said, adding that use of the 0844 code resulted in revenue sharing, whereby surgeries were “essentially charging the patients.”
Worcestershire Primary Care Trust is currently investigating the use by GPs of such telephone systems, after a letter of complaint from the local patient and public forum.
Paul Bates, chief executive at the trust, said: “We are going to investigate their use, and we will work with local GPs to identify alternative options, which GPs will be encouraged to use.”
Richard Vautry, deputy chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee, said his own practice used a 0844 number and that it cost the practice £1000 more than the previous system but was worth it.
“The way the companies operate is that they offer discounts off various services that they provide, such as call handling arrangements and having different lines available so the services of the phone system can be enhanced. But there is no monetary savings to be made.”
Dr Vautry said the biggest advantage of using the code was to improve access. Before his practice switched systems, a survey of local patients had shown that they rated access and getting appointments as very poor.
“We changed about 18 months ago, and since then we have seen a complete turnaround in the response of patients. We are able to manage the volume of calls much better,” he said.
“Once patients fully understand the full package, and it's clear that GPs aren't making profits out of patients, then the vast majority of patients are happy.”