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GPs have defended their right to install telephone systems that make patients call more expensive 0870 telephone numbers to contact their

practice.

Doctors using the systems said patients had benefited because they had enabled the practice to install more telephone lines to make it easier to get through.

GPs launched their defence after Pulse revealed ministers were considering banning GPs from changing to an 0870 national rate number because calls cost 0.3p per minute more than normal local calls.

In some areas, patients have also complained the systems keep them on the phone longer by forcing them to go through a series of options before they can speak to practice staff.

Dr Terry John said his east London practice took on a system using an 0870 number following 'loads and loads of complaints' from patients that it was taking a long time to get through.

'On balance the practice feels it is benefiting ­ we're getting fewer complaints, although we have had a couple of queries about the additional cost,' he said.

'It has allowed us to transfer a call after hours directly to the out-of-hours service so patients don't have to call twice. There is also call directing so patients get through to where they need to.'

Dr John said he thought the improvements would 'feature heavily' in the practice's patient satisfaction survey for the quality framework.

Dr Stephen Kownacki said his practice in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, had had a 'smattering' of complaints since it installed an 0870 system in December.

He said the system needed 'fine-tuning' so emergency calls were filtered through.

But it had registered that the practice had received 700 calls before noon the previous Monday, which explained why the previous system had been so stretched. Staff can now be diverted to cover the phone lines at busy times of the week.

He said: 'It's not a panacea, but it makes a difference.'

But some GPs said they did not think it was ethical that patients should be paying more.

Dr Simon Fradd, a GP in Nottingham, said GPs were 'a state service that was free at the point of demand'. He said: 'I don't feel we should be going down this line. I don't think it's fair on the patient. If a patient is registered with a surgery they don't have any choice.'

Dr Fradd, former GPC deputy chair, added that other systems might cost more in the short-term, but GPs could recoup the money.

Around 300 practices have so far installed 0870 telephone systems.

By Rob Finch

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