A HEALTH centre manager has vowed to scrap her surgery's premium rate phone number after the Guardian revealed the massive phone bills patients are running up.

Anyone who wants to make an appointment at Loughton Health Centre in The Drive currently has to call its 0844-prefixed number, which can cost up to twice as much as a local number.

One patient, Whitehills Road resident Marie Alexis, 41, spent £10 in mobile phone credit trying to make an appointment for her eight-year-old daughter Jayga Leslie, who has a bad flu and fever.

“I'm on a pay-as-you-go mobile,” she said. “Local numbers are 20p a minute and I think 0844 numbers are anything from 40p to 80p.”

She has just got a job after being on income support and said she could not afford a phone line in her home.

“The telephone number is absolutely ridiculous,” she added. “You have to go to the surgery at 8.30am if you can't afford to make the calls.”

She said she had run out of credit and had to send text messages to friends and relatives to ask them to call the surgery for her.

The practice manager, Karen Cassell, who took over the running of the surgery in September, said the premium-rate number had attracted more complaints from patients than anything else since it was introduced about five years ago.

“It's one of the biggest problems,” she added. “We have a patient feedback group that meets here quarterly and the feedback has always been about the phones.

“I've been approached by another company about switching our phones back and by mid-February, we will be back to a local number.”

She added that she had inherited the current system when she became practice manager, so did not know why it had been introduced there.

“When 0844 numbers came out, they were generally sold to companies on a basis that they would make an income, but in reality, that didn't actually happen,” she added.

She said the surgery's new number would be displayed on posters and leaflets and patients still calling the 0844 number after February would be informed.