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GPs lose out over phone numbers

Practices that use telephone numbers starting '084' could be forced to shift to new '03' numbers because they are cheaper for patients to call.

But the switch could mean practices will lose advanced services such as call queuing, a leading phone systems manufacturer is warning.

The 03 number, to be introduced by Ofcom in the next few months, will be marginally cheaper than 084 numbers

because it can be included in lower-cost call plans.

Lord Warner, former health minister, wrote to PCTs last month urging them to ensure practices were offering patients the cheapest option.

Although he said it was up to practices to decide which to use, Lord Warner added they had to stay within the Government's 'Cost to the Citizen' guidance.

'Normally local or "03" numbers will mean the lowest cost to the patient,' he wrote.

About 1,300 practices use an 084 number as an alternative to a local number. NEG, which supplies systems to about 1,000 of these practices, said it would not offer services such as computerised systems to those that switched. These systems put patients in a queue rather than giving an engaged tone.

Richard Chapman, NEG chief executive, said: 'Only one in 700,000 patients using 084 complains about prices. Even if 03 does prove cheaper, it would only be about 1p less per call.'

Two years ago practices were forced to switch from using national 0870 numbers, which are significantly more expensive than local calls, to the 'non-

geographical' 084 alternative.

Dr Anita Campbell, a GP in Sheffield who uses 084, said: 'We haven't had any complaints from patients, but if the 03 number proves cheaper then we would consider changing.'

Dr Will Elson, a GP in Woodbridge, Suffolk, said his practice would stick with 084 because a new phone system would cost £10,000.

Dr Peter Saul, a GP from Rhos, north Wales, who backed the 'say no to 0870' campaign two years ago, said practices should use a local number.

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