Norwich GP practice defends new 0844 number

A Norwich health practice has defended its new phone number which could cost some patients up to 41p a minute to call.

West Pottergate Health Centre, in Earlham Road, switched over to using an 0844 number this week.

While the centre argues that most patients will be unaffected as it will cost no more to call from a landline, critics say it can cost as much as 41p a minute from a mobile phone, depending on operators and payment packages.

David Hickson, who has campaigned against public services using these numbers for years, also points out that often people with limited incomes use pay-as-you-go phones instead of landlines, and that 0844 or 0845 numbers are not always included in telephone 'bundled call allowances,' for example when a package include free calls to landlines so some landline users will be affected too.

He said: 'This goes against the principles of the NHS being free at the point of delivery.'

The health centre says its old telephone system meant that 50pc of calls were not answered and the new number would help them to deal with increasing numbers of calls.

In a clarification to patients, the centre says on its website: 'For virtually all patients' calls, the local GPs' 0844 number is not more expensive to call than using an ordinary number. More than 4.5 million patients use an 0844 number to contact their GP surgery every month.

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'Patients pay local call rates with the 0844 number charges from landlines. If you use a mobile phone, depending on your provider and contract, such calls can cost more. Therefore, we encourage you to use a landline.'

Practice manager Don Pearson said: 'We hope patients will judge us by the service that we provide. Our telephone access was poor and this will improve that.'

The centre is also encouraging mobile telephone users to use its website to place requests for repeat prescriptions.

The most recent Department of Health guidelines, which came into force on April 1 this year, are that 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 says that it is up to PCTs to ensure that GP practices comply with this in line with their standard contract.

Nikki Cocks, of NHS Norfolk, said: 'We are working with practices to make sure they put in place arrange-ments which are convenient to patients and consistent with contractual requirements.'