Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 11/10/2005Not the best of days. A call from up-country says that my mother hasbeen taken into hospital (it all worked out OK in the end).

Tuesday 11/10/2005
Not the best of days. A call from up-country says that my mother has been taken into hospital (it all worked out OK in the end). As it was a case of being ferried in rapidly from the GP's surgery and then being kept in overnight, she was unprepared for her detention. "I didn't even have my iPod!" she complained later -- which is good going for someone who didn't even listen to CDs until Christmas and had only been in possession of a nano for two days prior. (If you, like the editor of Scotland on Sunday, are having trouble finding one, try Argos. They seem to have heaps).

But once again, I'm frustrated and angered by the hospital telephone system. You can't use a mobile phone on the ward -- you have to receive calls on a bedside extension which costs around 50p a minute to call into; just to make sure the caller is comfortable with this, there's a long and very slowly enunciated recorded message to listen to before you're put through. I found it bad enough: for people on low wages, the thought of a 10-minute chat costing an hour's pay must be nearly unbearable. But you have to call -- especially if you can't easily visit because of not having tons of money to spend on taxis to travel to and from a remote hospital.

It's the worst sort of extortion – money-grabbing capitalist bastards at it again, right? Well, no. The company behind the system, Patientline, is haemorrhaging money and is currently in talks with its backers to ward off defaulting on various guarantees. The NHS went out and asked for a bedside entertainment/telephone system with certain provisos, seemingly designed to save money while being fair to the patients. The system had to be self-funding, thus conserving NHS funds for medicine; and calls the patient made couldn't be too expensive -- in some cases, they had to be free. In exchange, there would be a monopoly on calls.

Which accounts for the 50p/min charge on incoming calls -- there weren't many ways left for the company to make money, especially considering it decided to install tens of thousands of £1,700 bedside units. Yet as we have seen, people find that sort of thing unacceptable: it really does feel like extortion at a most vulnerable time. As a result, complaints have been made to Ofcom and Ofcom is busy investigating -- and Patientline has stopped rolling out its system until the results of that investigation are in. Hence the financial panic, and the fact that my mother's bedside television (also part of the package, if you care to cough up £3.50/day) was broken with nobody much caring to fix it.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: public access Wi-Fi on the wards, a pool of secondhand laptops, volunteer maintenance a la Hospital Radio and a sponsored VoIP gateway will replace all this at a fraction of the cost and ten times the capability. When you're ill, you need to be in as good a contact with your loved ones as you can be: Skype to Skype sounds like you're in the room with your correspondent, and email is perfect for talking when you're not quite sure when the other person's awake or available. And when might you want really good access to medical resources online? Quite.

But even if I could have got a laptop to my mother in time with GPRS or 3G data, it would have been forbidden by ward rules -- to protect the monopoly of a company which was failing to provide an infinitely worse service at a far higher cost.

The people who made this happen are presumably the people behind the NHS national IT project.

Shall we march on Whitehall before it really is too late?