/ Health, Technology

Lost patience with expensive hospital entertainment?

Wallet examined by stethoscope

Sometimes hospital entertainment systems are all patients have to keep them occupied. But the cost of using these systems, which combine a TV and phone, could put many of us off using them all together.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be stuck in hospital recently you may have had access to a ‘bedside entertainment system’ – a combined telephone and TV set that also offers internet, radio and even games for patients.

Prices vary across different hospitals, but you could expect to pay between £1 for an hour of credit, or £20 for twelve days.

And although phone calls out shouldn’t cost any more than 10p, if your family or friends want to give you a call while you’re languishing in bed, they could be charged as much as 49p a minute. You could phone your long lost uncle in Australia for less than that!

Vulnerable hit by big costs

As for watching telly, since you may not be lucky enough to know how long your hospital stay will be, you could be stuck paying as you go, which could rack up big costs over time.

What’s more, your hours of credit will start being eaten up as soon as you start watching, but switching the telly off won’t pause your credit for later use. No, you’ll have to buy even more credit next time.

When I broke my arm and spent a week in hospital without TV, I was bored to tears by the end of it. But there are examples of patients in much worse situations where the problem is even more acute.

If you’re suffering from a serious condition, for instance, you could be stuck in hospital for months where TV might be your only company. Plus, you’ll want support from your loved ones over the phone, but being struck by a hefty phone bill won’t keep spirits up.

It seems unfair that people who are at their most vulnerable are being forced to shell out for simple home comforts that can make a stay in hospital less daunting.

No obvious solution

But what should we as patients expect in this age of cuts? As a recent Watchdog investigation reported, the private companies that maintain these services aren’t making the huge profits you might anticipate.

The problem is a little complex, but when the systems were introduced in the early 2000s both the NHS and these private companies thought there’d be enough demand to get prices down. However, with the rise of mobile phone use, companies have struggled to break even and claim they can’t afford to make it cheaper than it already is.

The NHS and Ofcom investigations couldn’t find an obvious solution, but the companies have said costs could be brought down if extra services, like letting patients order hospital food through the systems, were subsidised by the hospitals.

Have you or someone else been shocked by the price of these hospital entertainment systems? How would you feel if hospitals paid for some of the cost to reduce the price for patients? Maybe there isn’t even a place for them in this age of iPhones and laptops.


When one of my disabled children was in hospital we fell for the ‘entertainment system’ and found it a real pain to get working. The set up screens appeared to simply loop round and round until in desperation we kept ringing the help desk to sort it out. Its cunning combination of high prices and stupid menu designs makes for a fraught introduction to the system. In the event my daughter was able to use her mobile and we organised for family to attend for much of the time she was there, so never used the entertainment system to call her. In the end petrol and parking cost more than the ‘entertainment system’.
The user hostile pricing and set up does nothing to popularise the system so it is little wonder that it is not the gold mine that the investors hoped it would be.
I knew one of the early senior members of one of the system companies; this helps me to understand why it is so user hostile.

I think what gets most people’s backs up is that so many ‘bolt-on’ services offered by our hospitals (like the ones mentioned above, car parking, using cash points, etc) appear to be charged extortionately. I don’t think anyone would begrudge paying for TV or phone so long as it was charged reasonably. This is fair play Britain – but there doesn’t seem to be any sense of fair play in any of this.

Technically, it can’t be too difficult to provide a handful of the most popular channels to each set.
And it can’t be too difficult to provide a simple phone service – most offices have these so I don’t understand why hospitals and their providers think this is incredibly expensive.

I suspect some hospital managers are trying to have too much fun being little Lord Sugars and trying to run hospitals too much like businesses. All very easy when you have a captive audience that doesn’t really want to be there.

My Grandad’s been in hospital a lot over the last month. We set up Patientline for him, but he can’t use it as he can barely see to use the phone, isn’t interested in the TV and basically forgets everything you tell him on how to use it. Plus when you call in you’re have to go through about 1 and half minutes before it actually rings the phone (that was 67p from my mobile to test it was working and so he’d know what it sounds like. However, he seems to just ignore it when we ring anyway!)

On a positive note, for him to call (which he can when someone does it for him) is free if it’s a UK landline. And once the service is set up, we can call him (not that he answers) even if he’s not got any credit on it.

If it was me in hospital, I’d make good use of it, as it had a good range of TV channels (though some films were extra). £10 for 3 days is not cheap, but that versus me going completely bonkers (unless I was too out of it to care) would be money well spent. Just hoping won’t have to take advantage though!

Gilly says:
15 January 2011

I spent sometime in hospital and was more than grateful for the use of their phone/tv system. However, I have to agree that the way it works is quite mind bogglingly unfair, particularly to the patients loved ones who ring in. When someone rings you it does take ages for them to be connected (all of which is costing them some ridiculous amounts) – they are told if they stay on the line for a specific time the patient will be given free time on their tv allowance. My son rang me every day for quite a long conversation and was always pleased to have given me the freetime tv – this unfortunately starts to run immediately and if you don’t watch the tv at that time you lose the free time given. All my family were absolutely shocked at the amount it had cost them to phone me whilst I was in hospital for a period of 10 days – their phone bills were astronomically more expensive than normal. It was an absolutely wonderful lifeline to me the patient however. I don’t know what could be done to make it work better but do not think the NHS should pay for it.

The first comment reminded me that it was a bit of a pain to set up – you have to call customer services to register the person (that was about 5 mins on hold), then it’s not exactly user friendly to register it on the system. No way Grandad would be able to do that himself!

Verity says:
23 December 2010

When my elderly mother was in hospital recently, I paid for the overbed TV system so that she could see her favourite programmes. Shortly after I left her, she was moved into another ward and the TV system didn’t follow her, despite numerous phone calls to ward and helpline. After 10 days in hospital she had never seen any TV programmes, nor did I ever receive a credit for the amount I paid up front and which she was never able to use.
I don’t mind paying for TV etc but when patients are moved between wards, systems MUST be in place for the pre-payment TV system to follow them. In my mother’s case no one on the wards could give me any information or guidance on how to arrange.

why is it not possible to give hospital inpatients the same deal on televisions that prison inmates receive.

That’s an interesting point – I hear that they also gets games consoles free of charge as well.

scott says:
28 December 2010

I dont have any previous with this matter but I do like the last comment about prisons, also surely if we are in hospital through no fault of our own, through paying national insurance and TV license havent we already paid for this service. the phone yes we should pay. i know hospitals are costly places to run but i bet the big boys have lovely big flat screens in their offices and can call whoever they want when they want for nothing, then get driven home to their massive house in a lovely merc to find their over inflated pay cheque on the door step.

The comment raising the comparison with prison inmates is indeed interesting. Prisoners have seldom contributed to the NHS (or probably in many cases even society generally!) yet the privileges and facilities extended to them are apparently way above any shown to hospital patients! Inmates at Peterhead Prison have on a number of occasions sued the government under the Human Rights Act as they insist ‘sloping out’ infringes their rights! Despite plummeting temperatures, their cells MUST be maintained at a certain temperature – again something not extended to many pensioners homes.
We must really live in a weird society to consider the rights of prisoners over and above the infirm, disabled and elderly!

scott says:
28 December 2010

Danny, love your work very interesting.

Now that my thought processes have started……..
Why do hospitals not have ALL the facilities that prisons have? Free internet access, free use of computers, television, snooker/pool; in fact the list goes on and on…….
Prisoners have been found guilty of crimes against society whereas the only ‘crime’ of hospital patients is to have become ill or old.
When I was a child (in the now admittedly rather too distant past), my parents worked in a psychiatric/geriatric hospital; at that time these institutions were ‘lunatic asylums’. Our house was in the extensive grounds of this now thankfully demolished facility. At that time the larger establishments, of which this was one, were really borderline between hospitals and prisons – so I guess that’s where my association of the two kicks in!
Can anyone enlighten me as to why the old, infirm, disabled etc are not afforded the same level of amenities – stating Government cutbacks, lack of funds etc cannot hold water as the revenue seems to be found for prisoners?

It is worth remembering that the NHS does not make any money out of these systems.
They were installed (free to the NHS) and are maintained by outside companies – and I understand it hasnt been the money-spinner they expected.
My experience is that TV etc access is provided free on the childrens wards.

Without this private input most patients would not have access to a TV and the only phone would be one on a trolley.

Annie says:
4 February 2011

When my husband was in hospital the tv/phone unit at his bed did not work. He reported it was not working but it was not repaired during his 2 week stay. Claiming the cost of the payment card was so difficult, we gave up. He had to put up with the man in the next bed running his,loud,TV, without headphones, 24/7, disrupting my husband’s sleep. (Staff would not intervene.). We could not contact each other by phone, so if he needed me to bring anything in for him, there was a days delay as I could only visit once a day. Really not sure that these units are a good idea – it just made my husbands stay in hospital even more unpleasant than it needed to be.

EW says:
24 June 2011

I have been caught by this several times when ringing friends or relatives in hospital. What was particularly annoying was to have to listen to a lengthy recorded message from the provider before I was put through, telling me the more I rang the more free tv credits the patient would earn. I was also charged even when the patient was not available to answer the phone, including the minutes spent listing to the recorded message. I assume hospitals earn revenue from these systems. Is this why they ban the use of mobile phones? I am not convinced that mobile phones need to banned on health and safety ground, as when I admitted to a private hospital recently, there was not such ban.

I had a relative in hospital. As he is long term sick and on benefit, he simply could not afford hopital TV or phones. However, he had to lie there in his bed all day, watching other, richer people, enjoying TV. This did nothing to help his mental state which is so important for recovery. It was very pleasing to see that some other patients, when being discharged gave him their TV cards with unised trime as they could not get refunds. Patients should not be put in the position.

Our new research into hospital entertainment found that 61% of those surveyed thought it was poor value for money, while a third find the systems confusing to use.

Which? member Phil Griffin was stunned when he read his phone bill after calling his mother in hospital.

He said: ‘It was good to be able to dial my mother’s bed directly, but when we got the bill a month later we were in for a shock. It was very expensive even though… we only spoke to her for a minute or two each time.’

You can read about the latest research and find out how to avoid a hefty bill by visiting Which.co.uk:

Muriel says:
29 June 2011

I was taken into hospital while my husband was working on an oil rig in the North Sea. I was unable to phone him due to company policy – he phones me every day. But calls to premium rate numbers from the rig are barred – he could only call a landline. So we ended up passing messages to each other through a third party, which was not satisfactory for either of us. In addition, if he got through to the hospital ward (Crosshouse Hospital, in Ayrshire) the staff refused to call me to the phone, even though I was ambulant. The cost was also extortionate, I cannot remember exactly how much, but I thought it despicable that private companies can target people when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Jamie Louise Bartlam says:
29 June 2011

I went into hospital on the 14th June 2011 for spinal fusion surgery and had to stay in for 4 days.
When I was put on the ward, one of the first things I did was sort out the entertainment system so I had something to occupy and distract me whilst waiting to be taken down to theatre. I found it very complicated at first, but after several days in hospital I soon got used to it. We paid £20 for a bundle which would last 5 days and included calls to landlines made out from the entertainment system’s phone, unlimited tv, games, internet and movies. Payment wasn’t that difficult, we were able to type the debit card details into the entertainment system rather than going to the top up machines.
However when I came back from theatre I was moved into a private room, the nurses said that my credit would be transferred from the ward entertainment system to the one in the private room but we found out that the entertainment system in the private room wasn’t working and wouldn’t turn on. My mum managed to call the operator and tell them what had happened and they were very pleased that she had called to notify them that one of them was broken as many people don’t. The people that own the entertainment systems came to my room the next day and repaired it for me and even replaced my credit (even though my mum had obtained a refund which I did not know about as I wasn’t really with it after my operation!).
Although expensive I couldn’t have got through my hospital stay without it! I have an iphone which I had planned to use in hospital to check facebook, phone and text, however I couldn’t get a signal in the ward so the tv, phone and internet (although basic and slow) was a must have. Although I could never get the phone on the system to work, I tried to ring my mum’s mobile number and it would not dial. My mum tried to phone me and she said she had to listen to a lengthy message before being put through to me. Other comments on this article say that they were charged a premium rate for phone calls to the patient which I was not aware of as mum has not yet received her phone bill! This particular operation was one of many, when I have been on childrens wards for previous operations the entertainment system has always been free to use, and I think at least the tv service on the entertainment systems should be free in all wards, it is unfair for private companies to take advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable, and without a tv in hospital patients have nothing else to do but stare at the four walls!

Paul Young says:
1 July 2011

I like to think I’m pretty ‘tech savvy’ but it took me an hour to set up the TV (only) for my Mom to watch when she was in hospital recently! It said the steps were as easy as 1 2 3 – what a load of twoddle! The terminals gave no change and I only wanted to spend £10, but had a £20 – so had to scour the hospital for some change. I would have paid by credit card at the temminal, but the phone wasn’t working and others were missing. No mention anywhere of registering the patients details, and when I eventually got through to an operator (more by luck than judement) I had to register all my mother’s details including date of birth and home address. My Mom had had a big operation so wasn’t exactly ‘with it’ to get information from her easily. There’s no way she could have done this if she didn’t have help. Why can’t you just buy a card and stick it in the machine? Why all this registering? What my Mom’s birthday got to do with watching TV in hospital? No wonder these companies aren’t making as much money as they hoped – they make the whole operation far too complicated. Oh, and then the bed was quite far away from the wall so she had to watch it at the side of thebed with her head twisted. She didn’t bother in the end. The company was Hospedia I believe. Useless system!

Kevin says:
5 July 2011

I have some experience of this after a relative had a stay of a couple of months in a few hospitals run by the same Trust. Pros: (1) I think it was good that such a service was available. (2) It was good that my relative could phone out to UK landlines free of charge. (3) Her phone number moved with her from ward to ward and from hospital to hospital. (4) When the longest period of credit was purchased it worked out at about £1 a day, which I thought was very reasonable for the entertainment it would give the typical patient stuck in bed all day. (5) Patients weren’t distured by what others where viewing unlike years ago when each ward had one TV on full volume whether every patient wanted it or not. Cons: (1) The service wasn’t easy to setup nor straightforward to put credit on. (2) It broke down several times. (3) The nurses often forgot to put the TV/phone back in position after seeing to the patient, so patients with reduced mobility couldn’t read and couldn’t access the services they had paid for. (4) But by far my biggest complaint was the cost of incoming calls – callers had to listen to a 2 minute message which meant they’d paid £1 before the phone rang at the bedside, and if the patient was asleep or away having treatment then the caller had paid £1 for nothing.
In conclusion – these systems are a vast improvement on what they replaced (single TVs) but the costs of incoming calls needs to be reduced massively.

Alan says:
6 July 2011

I have arranged to hire television/radio and telephone services (Hospedia) at St Georges Hospital, Tooting for my wife on a number of occasions in the last few months. At the beginning we found the system very complicated to use (on later occasions I helped a number of patients with it).
When registering the operator insists on asking how long the patient is going to stay in hospital
a This can a very sensitive question for a patient who has been admitted with a serious problem, it can be similar to asking how long is the patient going to live
b In my wife’s case, (and I would think it is a common situation) every time she has been admitted she has stayed longer than was originally suggested she might
c I believe the decision on length of time as an in-patient is always based on clinical diagnosis, and is not the patient’s preference or decision.
In the light of the previous paragraph it seems inappropriate that basic pricing structure depend on the predicted stay when first admitted.
Surely a fairer system would be one where discount was given for longer stays.
Hospedia latest pricing structure has drastically different number of days available for the package of tv, radio & telephone only, and with the addition of films, their appears to be no logical reason for this.
Because they currently sell packages for a fixed number of days they are committed to maintaining a system at every bed. It appeared to me that the takeup of the system was fairly low, they might increase their takeup by reducing the prices and making the pricing structure more appropriate.