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LYNNE FEATHERSTONE: Phoning home is a tonic for patients

PUBLISHED: 10:01 15 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:48 07 September 2010

ET the extra terrestrial demonstrated a really human need – which, given that he was an alien and also not real – perhaps makes the point even stronger. What did ET want to do most? Answer: phone home! Nowhere is that need to speak to loved ones stronge

ET the extra terrestrial demonstrated a really human need - which, given that he was an alien and also not real - perhaps makes the point even stronger. What did ET want to do most? Answer: phone home!

Nowhere is that need to speak to loved ones stronger than in hospital when you are ill - or even if you are not ill and have had something delightful happen, like having a baby. We all want to phone home - or to use another vernacular - phone a friend.

So it always seemed particularly cruel and heartless that phoning home - the use of a phone at your hospital bedside (or even if you are mobile in the corridor) was priced at a hideously high rate, commercialised and contracted. Why did they ever think that was a good or fair or kind idea? No - don't answer!

But now for the good news. The government has just relaxed the ban on the use of mobile phones in hospitals. Some of our local hospitals already have progressive policies on mobile phone use, and I hope they will all seize this opportunity to review their policies and give patients the greatest freedom possible to stay in touch.

It's not just the removal of the ban on mobiles that is important - it is how that relaxation is welcomed or otherwise (and implemented) by our local hospitals.

Now is the moment to get this right and that is why I have now written to the chief executives of the Whittington, North Middlesex, Royal Free and Haringey Teaching Primary Care Trust (TPCT) calling for an urgent review of policies on mobile phones.

Of course there must continue to be sensible restrictions to preserve tranquillity and protect privacy. However, I think it's easy to underestimate the benefits of being able to receive a goodnight text from a loved one when you're ill.

One reason for reviewing with urgency is that it would appear that patients are taking matters into their own hands. One account I heard was from someone who spent a few hours accompanying a patient in a ward where, following the government announcement and not waiting for any new hospital 'regulations' they are already simply ignoring the notices forbidding the use of mobile phones.

This is a clear indication in my view of the deep resentment that patients have felt at being forced to use the commercially contracted phones. Released from the chains that have bound them, at the first opportunity they are just doing what anyone would.

There is some concern out there about whether mobile phone signals interfere with important medical equipment. But my understanding is that they only interfere with very particular equipment and those areas could still have a ban. All the more reason to get new rules in place, and fast, so that people understand that any remaining bans are there for good reasons rather than just a left-over from the past.

Doctors at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford said way back in 2003 that any interference is temporary and localised. Most such sensitive equipment is actually in operating theatres - and certainly it isn't going to be the patient's mobile that is the problem there - only those of the nurses, doctors and surgeons!

Perhaps there is at least one really valid concern - whether it is medically a good idea as patients should be resting, not working or even chatting too much from a hospital bed.

You can just imagine, for example, how a workaholic, perhaps even driven to hospital by their habits, might be over-keen to keep in touch with work.

And there are the other patients within earshot to respect. But on the other side there is a feeling of isolation when you are in hospital.

So just like visiting, perhaps there should be times when there should be no mobile calls and rest times for patients. So - hurrah. Common sense is beginning to win the day - and we haven't seen much of that recently!

Lynne Featherstone is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey & Wood Green


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