Thursday, 6 December 2012

Do we have a right to our mobile phone?

OK, so you’re in hospital and you want to ring your Mum, or your brother or your best mate… but you can’t, because the staff have confiscated your mobile phone. And you can’t borrow another person’s mobile phone on the ward, because everyone’s mobile phones have been taken away and locked in the office.

It doesn’t seem likely in 2012 that this situation could arise, but on a mental health ward at Bronllys Hospital in South Powys, this is the reality. There is a free phone available in a private room for patients, but this is a 12 bed unit, and queuing for a chance to use the phone is hardly spontaneous… Besides, how can you possibly predict when someone might want to ring or text you?

For two years now staff, patients, carers and others have bounced two conflicting rights backwards and forwards:

  1. The right to access your own mobile phone when you wish to make and receive calls and texts.
  2. The right of others on the ward to privacy (did you ever come across a mobile without a camera these days…?)

But so far no balance or compromise has been reached. And every month at the Patients’ Council meetings patients ask for their phones to be returned, but nothing changes.

The relevant law around this is contained in The Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983, and states in Section 16, Privacy & Safety:

“Given that mobile phones provide a readily available means of communication with family and friends and are in widespread use, most detained patients are likely to have one. It is unlikely to be appropriate to impose a blanket ban on their use except in units specifically designed to provide enhanced levels of security in order to protect the public.”

There is also a useful NHS document called Using mobile phones in NHS hospitals which you can read and download here. This states early on:

“The Department wishes to reflect the rapidly developing principles of patient choice in the matter of mobile phone usage. It therefore considers that the working presumption should be that patients will be allowed the widest possible use of mobile phones in hospitals, including on wards, where the local risk assessment indicates that such use would not represent a threat to:

  • patients’ own safety or that of others, 
  • the operation of electrically sensitive medical devices in critical care situations,
  • the levels of privacy and dignity that must be the hallmark of all NHS care.”

The Stronger in Partnership Network in Powys is working to change the approach to mobile phone usage at Bronllys Hospital. In gathering feedback about the Aneurin Bevan Health Board mobile phone policy which covers the mental health ward at Bronllys, a patient who had previously attended another unit said about using her mobile phone:
“….this was a vital form of contact and normality for them (my children) and me, allowing some control over the situation on the home front whilst also decreasing that sensation of loneliness and isolation.”
A mother of someone who had been on a ward at Bronllys Hospital said:
“…This is a step back into the dark ages - when mobile phones are part of most people's life style with music, photos…. and an important means of contacting friends and family. Patients at Bronllys are denied that right presumably because they don't have the same needs as other people!!!”

In other areas of the UK patients are allowed mobile phones on mental health wards if they promise not to take photographs or videos without seeking permission first. If they break the rules, their mobile phone can be removed. Fair enough -  life is full of rules. And we all pay the consequences for breaking them. But we aren’t punished before we break them.

Why is it so different on a mental health ward? Let us know what you think.

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