Twenty-two thousand lucky National Health Service patients will get touch-screen entertainment systems at their beds giving them telephone, TV, movies, radio and audio books, thanks to a new IP network to be installed in 55 hospitals across the country. The system could inject some competition into a world where Patientline has been the leading player for eight years.

The systems, essentially larger versions of those built into the seat-backs of airliners, will be installed by integrator Central Telecom using equipment form Mitel, as part of NHS efforts to meet two Government targets. All hospitals must have bedside TV and telephone services for paitents, by the end of this year, says the Government. And furthermore, doctors should get the benefit by the end of 2005, when the same systems must deliver patient records to them.

This may sound back to front, worrying about the frivolous business of entertaining patients before helping with the actual business of making them better, but there is a canny reason for it, and it is to do with finance. Companies that put these systems in put them in for nothing– in exchange for an exclusive long-term contract to charge patients to use their services.

Once the commercial side is in place and running smoothly, the plan is to add a secure channel through which the medical staff can access patient records, and also interface the system to management systems, which track patients during their hospital stay.

There are already many thousands of such bedside entertainment systems in hospitals, put in since 1995 by Patientline, a company run by former inspect of of prisons, Derek Lewis. These offer email, telephone and television services, as well as some interactive hospital services.

Patientline foots a bill reckoned to be about £1 million per 600 bed hospital, and gets fifteen years’ contract to sell services. A certain amount of basic use is free, but patients have to pay for premium channels. The package is obviously carefully worked out, including such wrinkles as offering free TV access to the under-16s, presumably to keep them quiet as a service to the hospital staff.

The services offered by Mitel’s system sound remarkably similar to those of Patientline, but Mitel assures us that its 22,000 person network is different in being based on the Internet protocol (IP). It also describes it as Europe’s largest IP network, though we’re not sure what that claim is based on, given that any decent ISP serves about fifty times that many customers with IP.

Patientline was unable to confirm what technology its system uses by press time, but it is already installed in 167 hospitals (both in the UK and other European countries, and Lewis told the company’s AGM earlier this year that the system is already being used for phase two of the Government’s plan, access to patient records, at Chelsea and Westminster hospital. “This is an industry first,” he told the meeting.

The Mitel-based network, which uses Tele-Call terminals from health service supplier the Wandsworth Group, will offer television, interactive movies, audio books, radio, telephone, messaging and high-speed Internet access. This uses Mitel Networks’ Your Assistant communications management software, and Mitel’s 3300 Integrated Communications Platform (ICP).

“We put our first systems in three or four months ago,” said Simon Gwatkin, vice president of marketing at Mitel. “We are about a third of the way through the 22,000 now. Payment can be through a card swipe, or by credit card. It’s progress from a payphone on wheels.”

The NHS is the largest organisation in Europe, employing over a million people, so there is room for more than one patient entertainment system there.