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The lure of online GP providers

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I’ll let you in to a little secret. At our Pulse LIVE event in March, we were worried about a backlash about Babylon – the private online GP service that is taking on NHS patients – attending as an exhibitor. We knew the strength of feeling among our readers, and the Pulse editorial team was not in favour of their presence.

But editorial independence – which we pride ourselves on – works both ways, and just as we are not dictated to by advertisers, we have little say over who advertises with us.

However, the event itself was an eye opener. Because – as Copperfield brilliantly detailed – crowds were swarming around the stand, with delegates genuinely interested in the recruitment packages on offer. And there were real benefits on offer: good pay, indemnity, private health insurance among other things. With the problems in routine general practice showing no signs of abating, this lure is understandable.

So it is not wholly surprising that Babylon told Pulse that it has already recruited 200 GPs, who in part service the 40,000 patients who have signed up with the West London practice offering the GP at Hand online service.

There are risks for GPs deciding to join online providers

At the same time, 36 practices have signed up with Doctaly, the start-up company pairing NHS GP practices with private fee-paying patients. It seems the lure of the online providers is real.

But let’s insert a note of caution. There are risks for GPs deciding to join online providers. A number of bodies are actively against it: CCGs have doubts around such schemes; the CQC is turning its attention towards online prescribers; and the BMA has already threatened a judicial review.

Meanwhile, the Unite union today turned its attention to Babylon, calling on health secretary Jeremy Hunt to ‘scrap this flawed and misguided model’, echoing the concerns of many grassroots GPs.

Babylon is standing firm, continuing to assert ‘it is high time that everyone respected people’s right to choose the NHS GP service that works best for them’.

Yet in such a – to use another phrase in the news – ‘hostile environment’, can Babylon and their competitors continue to thrive? It would not be a massive surprise if, despite the current successes, the private online GP bubble is on its way to bursting. 

Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse