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Health secretary says Babylon-style GP model should become 'available to all'

The NHS should 'harness' new technology such as Babylon's GP at Hand app, and ensure that it becomes available to all patients, health secretary Matt Hancock has said.

In his first speech since being appointed to the role last week, Mr Hancock acknowledged complaints against the 'revolutionary' model but said it 'works brilliantly' for him.

Following reports last week that Mr Hancock uses GP at Hand, GP leaders said they were 'very concerned' and hoped 'that this does not signal his general approach'.

Speaking today at West Suffolk Hospital, Mr Hancock said: ‘Not only do I have my own app for communicating with my constituents here in West Suffolk, but as you may have heard I use an app for my GP. 

‘The discussion around my use of a Babylon NHS GP, which works brilliantly for me, has been instructive.

‘Some people have complained that the rules don’t work for care provided in this revolutionary new way. Others have said the algorithms sometimes throw up errors. 

‘Emphatically the way forward is not to curb the technology – it’s to keep improving it and – only if we need to – change the rules so we can harness new technology in a way that works for everyone: patient and practitioner.

‘I want to see more technology like this available to all, not just a select few in a few areas of the country.’

Babylon uses the out-of-area registration scheme to sign up NHS patients to its digital service via a host GMS practice based in Fulham, southwest London.

But GPs have called on NHS England to put a stop to the app, which they say ‘cherry picks’ fit, young and healthy patients and financially destabilises traditional GP practices.

Mr Hancock's first speech also revealed a partnership between the NHS and Amazon that will see patients ask their Alexa device for health advice from NHS Choices and an announcement of a £487m investment in hospital technology.

Dr Michelle Drage, chief executive of Londonwide LMCs, said: 'Currently the way the GP at Hand model works is it takes away resources from people with greater need. 

'There are all sorts of things he might say [in his first speech], for example that we need [more] GP workforce. But that's the one he's chosen to go with, which says quite a lot about his understanding of the system.'

Dr David Wrigley, Doctors in Unite chair and a GP in Lancashire, said: 'If Mr Hancock wishes to roll out [the GP at Hand] model then we’ll see more surgeries closing across the country and that has to be a bad thing for patients.'

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'Technology is excellent when used wisely but it can never be a substitute for GPs who are highly trained medical professionals who can consider all elements of our patients' lives.

'GPs - and our patients - need to know that the new health and social care secretary understands and values the role of modern GPs and that we are safe in his hands.'

A Babylon spokesperson said: 'The reality is that patients and GPs are flocking to GP at hand because they recognise the potential that high quality, digital-first 24/7 NHS GP services bring. The 200-plus GPs who have already joined Babylon also do so because they are treated with respect and not put under the levels of pressure all too common in other practices.'

Mr Hancock, who was previously digital, culture, media and sport secretary, became health secretary last week after Cabinet resignations saw Jeremy Hunt promoted to foreign secretary.

The move to digital-first general practice

Mr Hancock’s comments fit in with NHS England’s ambitions to reform the GP contract to enable the expansion of ‘digital-first’ models, which it says will have likely ‘transformed’ general practice ‘by the end of the next decade’.

The proposals out for consultation, described by NHS England as the biggest reforms since the 2004 GP contract, suggest changes to out-of-area patient payments, London weighting and the rurality index, as part of a wider bid to ensure operators such as GP at Hand can continue to expand without destabilising other practices.

NHS England defines ‘digital-first’ general practice as ‘delivery models through which a patient can receive the advice and treatment they need from their home or place of work via online symptom checking and remote consultation’.

According to NHS England, the model will ‘result in greater convenience for patients, and may help manage demand on general practice’.

Readers' comments (26)

  • Knowledge is Porridge

    More money? Already promised
    More staff? Already promised
    Safer care? Already promised
    Of course he's going to talk up technology. They are going to struggle to deliver all the promises.
    Meanwhile gp at hand is making lots of noise like a dot-com start up. I bet it will fail...but something like it will succeed. In 20 years.

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  • Come back Jeremy - all is forgiven. I might even vote Labour next time (can't believe I just typed that)

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  • Why oh why are polititians ‘leading the NHS’ when they know f all about it.
    Depoliticise it

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  • I can play Manic Miner, therefore Mr Hancock can I have a gong, gold-plated pension and a job at the DoH with all the perks please? I love technology me.

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  • There are some patients who may not be eligible to register as an out of area patient and will be advised by the practice if they cannot be registered:

    Women who are or may be pregnant (If you are pregnant, NHS England advises that you register with a GP practice close to where you live).
    Adults with a safeguarding need.
    People living with complex mental health conditions.
    People with complex physical, psychological and social needs.
    People living with dementia.
    Older people with conditions related to frailty.
    People requiring end of life care.
    Parents of children who are on the ‘Child at risk’ protection register.
    People with learning difficulties.
    People with drug dependence

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  • Look at his app in the AppStore not much kop 3/5 stars,a social media outlet and the only subject Mr Hancock,typical Tory tosser narcissist.You thought it couldn’t get worse,it has.

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  • I'm going to miss Hunt's 'kick you when you're down' smirk, hancocks cheesy smile just doesn't do it for me.

    Also, I'm too young to remember this but has there ever been a health secretary that was respected by coalface gp's or is this just our lot?

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  • Bevan (before my time) Frank Dobson (liked him, was my constituency MP when at med school. also liked Alan Johnson.

    Some of them have been Ok and supported the NHS.

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  • Took Early Retirement

    I AM voting Labour next time, even though retired.

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  • Vinci Ho

    In a way , one has to understand when a new health secretary first takes his/her position, the first part of the ‘script’ is trying to shift focus of attention from all things people have been dissatisfied, which ,in this case , are bloody everything in NHS . He is never going to be a strong Secretary of State of a very weak government. The wind is blowing fast and furious in Westminster and certainly within the Tory Party because of Brexit fiasco. Robocop is robotic and all things he said were actually predictable up to now and had nothing , nothing at all , to solve any crisis in NHS and general practice.
    So let’s watch this space and he can say whatever he says , we will respond and spin back .
    The more worrying political scenario to me , instead , is a possibility of a Prime Minister called Agent Hunt........

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