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Babylon GP at Hand given green light to expand NHS services to Birmingham

Babylon GP at Hand has been given the green light to expand to the UK’s second-largest city, the digital company has confirmed.

During an NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG meeting yesterday, it was announced the digital-first GP service will be allowed to expand its NHS offering to patients in Birmingham, after NHS England decided to lift its previous block.

While Babylon welcomed the news, hinting at future expansions ‘across the country’, GP leaders called the decision ‘wholly inappropriate’ as the ongoing independent evaluation of the service – expected next month – has yet to be published.

Babylon applied to launch a physical branch of its online services in Birmingham last year, but the plans were rejected by NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG – which referred the decision to NHS England – due to patient safety concerns relating to local infrastructure.

This came after NHS Birmingham and Solihull CCG wrote a letter to the London CCG, formally objecting to the move on the grounds of ‘clinical safety’.

Despite this, Pulse revealed Babylon still started recruiting GPs for the Birmingham expansion.

BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey called the announcement disappointing, warning the disruption faced by London GPs due to the service will now be replicated elsewhere.

He 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 Babylon 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 Babylon 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.’

Speaking to Pulse, a Babylon spokesperson said: ‘There was an NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG primary care committee meeting yesterday, where NHS England lifted the block on the expansion to Birmingham.’

They continued: ‘We welcome the decision to allow the expansion of Babylon GP at Hand to people living and working in Birmingham. The NHS long-term plan and GP contract framework set the vision for digital-first primary care and we look forward to making this a reality, in Birmingham and across the country.

‘We will continue to work closely with NHS commissioners, regulators and local providers on the safe and effective delivery of all our services.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘As set out in the long-term plan, the NHS will see an increasing use of digital technology and from 2021 every patient in England will have access to online and video consultation – if they choose it – and this practice is just one of the ways of providing that.’

NHS England said it will now work with NHS Hammersmith and Fulham and Birmingham and Solihull CCGs, national screening services, and Babylon GP at Hand to agree a start date.

Last month, Pulse revealed NHS Hammersmith and Fulham might not be able to ‘pay its bills’, due to finanicial pressures caused by tens of thousands of patients signing up to the digital-first NHS GP service.

The CCG then warned the costs associated with the service practice could ‘jeopardise’ other health and care services in the area if not resolved.

 Pulse has approached NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG for comment.

The rise of Babylon GP at Hand

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.

GP leaders expressed concerns about the impact of Babylon’s entry to London, after it rapidly signed up tens of thousands of patients to it’s GP at Hand app via the out-of-area registration scheme.

The service has also been criticised for ‘cherry picking’ patients, as it 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’. Although these restrictions have now been lifted.

Despite concerns, health secretary Matt Hancock said he is a patient of Babylon, and that the company is ‘taking the pressure off the NHS’.

An independent evaluation of the service is currently being conducted by Ipsos Mori, while the CQC is assessing whether the app has destabilised other GP practices, and its impact on the overall quality of care.

Meanwhile, GPs called on the BMA to abolish the out-of-area registration clause in the GMS contract – which allows patients to register with practices outside of the traditional GP boundaries – at the England LMC conference.