When calling your doctor to make an appointment, the cost of the call is rarely uppermost in the mind. Yet campaigners say up to 10 million patients are paying premium rates when they call their GP as surgeries across the country flout guidelines designed to prevent just that.
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In September 2009 the Department of Health declared that, as of April 1 2011, GPs would be banned from using 0844 and 0845 phone numbers.
However, campaigner David Hickson claims to have identified more than 1,000 surgeries still using the high-cost numbers. Calls to the premium rate lines can cost as much as 41p a minute for those using a mobile phone and, with many being kept waiting for test results or to book appointments, some patients are being hit with an £8 charge for a single call.
Mr Hickson told the Daily Mail: "People tell me they have been kept on the phone for 20 minutes. That's more than £8 for a single call. It's the elderly who will be hardest hit, or their relatives acting on their behalf.
"This is a case where the NHS's principle of 'free at the point of need' is being breached at present."
It is down to Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) across the UK to ensure that the cost of calls made to GPs is no higher than that of a local call (around 4p a minute) but 18 months after the new rules were announced, many have still not made the switch and various PCTs, hospitals, not to mention NHS Direct, also use 0845 numbers.
Those worst affected are patients in the South Yorkshire, West Midlands, Birmingham and Leicestershire areas.
However, doctors insist their surgeries receive only some of the income generated by the high-rate lines and any revenue gained is spent on installing and operating the systems.
A spokesman for the Department of Health added: "NHS organisations remain free to use non-geographical number ranges such as 0844, providing that patients are not charged more than the equivalent cost of calling a geographical number to do so.
"it is up to PCTs to ensure that GP practices comply with this in line with their standard contract."
What do you think? Should the Government do more to ensure that patients aren't charged premium rates for calls?