Section 1 Background
In July 2005 the Scottish Government introduced a ban on premium rate telephone numbers (0870 or 09). This however did not include 084 numbers, which are not classed as "premium rate" numbers. This Government's policy is clear that no person should be financially disadvantaged while contacting their GP practice.
This policy was reiterated in February 2011 by the then Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing Nicola Sturgeon MSP in an open letter to the Chief Executives of each NHS Boards. This guidance stated that practices must not enter into, renew or extend a telephone contract unless they were satisfied that having regard to arrangements as a whole, persons would not be charged more to make the relevant calls than if they made the equivalent call to a geographic number, where they are not comparable to this all reasonable steps to rectify this must be taken.
As independent contractors, decisions on the type of telephone system used in their practices are generally the responsibility of the practice partners.
The 084 number range is not classified as premium rate by Ofcom, the communications regulator, instead they are generally classified as non-geographic numbers or as number translation services.
When the 084 numbers were introduced in GP practices the extra functionality that these systems provided allowed practices to improve telephone access to patients. This included call queuing which handled large call volumes, automated appointment booking and providing out of hours access to amend or cancel appointments. These days however telecommunications solutions are available to rent or purchase which operate with the same functionality but have a standard geographic number.
When a call to an 084 number reaches the telephone network, the number dialled by the caller is "translated" by the network to a geographic number to deliver the call to its destination. These "translation" costs are generally higher for 084 than for other number ranges. In addition the cost of originating calls from a mobile network is higher than that from a fixed line. Therefore the costs of allowing its customers to access 084 numbers is higher for mobile operators than it is for fixed operators. In a highly competitive market these call costs are ultimately paid for by the customers.
This is why charges to call 084 numbers can differ depending on the provider and whether the call is made from a fixed line or a mobile. Where mobile providers offer contracts with bundled call minutes, 084 numbers are often excluded from these packages. For those on Pay As You Go tariffs, calls to these numbers usually cost more than those made from a contract mobile account.
Current regulations prevent practices from using particular number ranges as their contact number, specifically numbers beginning with 087, 090, 091 (premium rate numbers) or 070 (personal numbers). However, the current regulations do not include any specific requirement for practices to consider the cost or type of calls being made to them. This has resulted in an unintended difference in treatment of people contacting a practice with an 084 number by mobile telephone in comparison to a caller on a landline. In terms of call tariffs, the call rates which patients are charged to call a 084 number will depend on their mobile phone service provider.
Email: Iain Eddyshaw
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