Frank Arnold, managing director of Unicorn Hospital Communications, knows better than most the frustration of not being able to phone his relatives from a hospital bed.

Mr Arnold, a former surgeon, was admitted to hospital for an operation after a diagnosis of cancer. The night before the operation, when a house officer brought him a consent form, he felt the need to speak to his wife, but the trolley phone was broken and he was unable to leave the ward.

'I was confronted with a consent form that listed all the possible complications from the operation and I wanted to know what my wife would think if anything happened, ' he said. In 25 years of practising medicine, he had never before realised how important communications are for patients. 'I never really thought about it before but I believed we could do better, ' he says.

He used his convalescence to put together the Unicorn system, which has been awarded a provisional licence by NHS Estates. Its development is being supported by£57,000 from the Lottery-funded national endowment for science, technology and the arts.

The system, which is about to be piloted in one trust, offers a number of services, including TV, phone, radio and the Internet through a 15-inch flat screen monitor. Services are accessed simply by touching the screen while patients wear a headset to talk to phone callers.

Mr Arnold says the system will lift a burden from clinical staff.

Unicorn's informal research shows that nurses spend an average of 14 hours a week bringing messages to patients. It will also provide patients with more information about their conditions.

'The amount of information about health and treatments on the Internet is overwhelming; some of it good, some of it not so good.'

Martin Dawes, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, has agreed to help construct the patient information system, so that it delivers the facts about particular illnesses and their treatment in plain language, ' he says.

'We have taken a clinical rather than a commercial point of view and that is one of our strengths, I think.'