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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’.