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NHS Choices told to make cost of calling GPs on 0844 numbers clear

The price of calls to GP practices using 0844 numbers must be made clear on NHS Choices, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has ruled.

The advertising regulator ruled that information on practice telephone numbers on the NHS Choices website was ‘misleading’, breached advertising laws and must be amended to include information on the price of calls to 0844 numbers.

The ASA ruling – published today – said: ‘The ASA noted that calls to 0844 numbers were charged at a higher rate than standard calls on BT’s most popular call plan (BT Unlimited Weekend) and that the exact cost varied depending on the numbers that followed the first four digits.’

It added: ‘We considered that the costs of calling the 0844 numbers should have been made clear on the website. Because these costs were not clearly stated we concluded that the website was misleading.’

It was ruled that NHS Choices had breached the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code rules on misleading advertising and that the website must be amended to include clear information on pricing.

NHS Choices originally agreed to fix the problem in February 2013, but then failed to make the changes, prompting further action from the ASA.

An ASA spokesperson said NHS Choices would be given an unspecified amount of time to add this information to the website, and if they did not adhere to the ruling, they would refer them to the CAP who could take sanction.

The sanctions includes naming and shaming them on the ASA website, asking internet search websites to remove a paid-for search advertisements when those advertisements link to a page on that hosts non-compliant marketing communications, or organising for an ASA advertisement to appear on an appropriate page of an internet search website warning of the non-compliance.

Earlier this year, NHS England announced they wanted to crack down on practices still using 0844 numbers. They asked local area teams to identify practices still doing so, and said they would take action in due course.

One of the major telephone line suppliers, Daisy Group, which owns Daisy Line also announced that practices will be allowed to change to a cheaper number within the terms of their contract, and that it would stop selling 0844 numbers to NHS organisations.

A Department of Health spokesperson said that NHS choices will change their website: ‘We have been absolutely clear – patients should not be charged more to contact their GP than they would to call a standard landline number. It is the responsibility of GP practices and the local NHS to make sure this is the case.

‘We understand that NHS Choices are changing their website to make information on call charges clearer. NHS England are also actively researching the extent of use of 084 numbers and will take action when this work is done.’

Mr David Hickson, of the Fair Telecoms Campaign said this ruling highlighting the fact that no GP practices should be using 0844 numbers.

He said: ‘What we really hoped is that there wouldn’t be this problem for NHS choices because 0844 numbers should have been eliminated a long time ago. The ASA has drawn attention to the fact that we still have a problem and more work to do.

‘The ASA has ruled, and their rules must be followed. NHS Choices has to make it clear that these are expensive calls. There is no excuse for GP practices who use them. As we have shown, although they may have tied themselves into expensive contracts, they can switch to numbers which remove the burden of paying for the telephone system from their patients. The vast majority of GPs do not use these numbers and probably never would, but those that do continue to shame their profession.’