Controversial digital GP service given green light to expand

Babylon GP at Hand move into Birmingham widely criticised as 'premature', 'disappointing' and 'irresponsible'

The decision to approve the expansion of the controversial Babylon GP at Hand service has been dubbed ‘irresponsible’, ‘premature’, and ‘disappointing’ amid fears it could put patients at risk.

Expansion of the digital service, which provides NHS primary medical services for people of all ages, was blocked by NHS England.

But at a recent meeting of NHS Hammersmith and Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group it was revealed the ban had been lifted and it was announced that the digital-first GP service will be allowed to expand to patients in Birmingham.

While Babylon welcomed the news, hinting at future expansions 'across the country'; GP leaders have called the decision 'wholly inappropriate' because an ongoing independent evaluation of the service – the results of which are expected next month – has yet to be published.

To make this a reality, there must be investment in practice IT infrastructure – including improved broadband capability in surgeries – to create a level playing field with private companies such as Babylon

British Medical Association GP Committee Chairman, Dr Richard Vautrey, said: “We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which is not only premature, but flies in the face of place-based care delivered by practices embedded in local communities, which the recent changes in the GP contract are committed to deliver.

“The independent evaluation into GP at Hand is yet to publish its findings, so it is wholly inappropriate to allow this service’s expansion with no assurances over its safety and effectiveness.

“The well-documented problems that GP at Hand patients have experienced in London, as well as the disruption it has caused to local funding arrangements, will likely only be replicated in new cities if the service is rolled out there.

“Following this decision, NHS England must make it their priority – as promised in the GP contract agreement – to complete its review into the out-of-area arrangements that GP at Hand has exploited for too long.”

He added: “The Secretary of State has been clear in his ambitions for technology and the NHS, and, equally, GPs would like to offer video consultations to their own patients. These patients would benefit far more from being seen by a doctor close by and with a full understanding of their medical history, rather than someone miles away from their home.

“But to make this a reality, there must be investment in practice IT infrastructure – including improved broadband capability in surgeries – to create a level playing field with private companies such as Babylon.”

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which is not only premature, but flies in the face of place-based care delivered by practices embedded in local communities, which the recent changes in the GP contract are committed to deliver

And Dr Tony O’Sullivan, co-chairman of Keep Our NHS Public and a retired paediatrician, told BBH: “It is clear that apps, and particularly this one, are in no way the answer to the current crisis caused by underfunding and neglect. There is no such thing as a quick fix.

“Their rapid rollout without due diligence and proper scrutiny sets a worrying precedent in terms of all future technological development that may be planned in the NHS.”

Babylon joined up with a Hammersmith and Fulham GP practice and started offering online GP services as a replacement to regular GP practices across London in November 2017.

But GP leaders soon expressed concerns after it rapidly signed up tens of thousands of patients via the out-of-area registration scheme.

The service has also been criticised for ‘cherry picking’ patients, as it initially advised certain patients - including pregnant women and patients with learning difficulties - to discuss whether it may be ‘appropriate’ to register with a practice closer to home.

But, despite the concerns, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said he is a patient of Babylon and added that the company is ‘taking the pressure off the NHS’.

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