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BMA considering ‘all legal options’ to challenge GP at Hand rollout

Exclusive GP leaders are considering ‘all legal options’ to challenge the rollout of Babylon’s ‘GP at Hand’ service while also participating in regular talks with NHS England and NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG over its safety.

Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s GP committee, told Pulse that the BMA has now ‘taken legal advice around a range of issues’ concerning GP at Hand and are looking at ‘all legal options at the moment’ but would not confirm whether a judicial review or other legal challenge was still on the cards. 

This comes after LMC leaders voted in favour of a motion calling on the GP committee to ‘seek urgent legal advice’ on the ‘potential judicial review’ at the England LMCs conference in November.

He said: ‘We’re having regular dialogues with NHS England, also with the CCG, involving the local LMC as well, and have taken legal advice around a range of issues.’

He added that NHS England and the CCG, ‘need to be taking action’ to ensure those who register as patients with the service ‘fully understand what they’re doing’.

Patients who join the online GP at Hand service leave behind their former GP practice and join the patient list of Dr Jefferies and Partners’ Lillie Road Surgery, which is able to take them on under the ‘GP Choice’ out-of-area registration scheme.

Dr Vautrey’s comments come after board papers revealed that NHS England initially delayed the roll out of the service with concerns that patients ‘are likely to self-select in a way that results in a younger, healthier, more mobile population registering for the new service’.

However, GP leaders have previously said that this model is a ‘cynical exploitation’ of the GP Choice scheme, and warned that other people would look to replicate it.

A Babylon spokesman said: ‘The NHS belongs to the people, not vested interests in the BMA. Thousands of people have already chosen the convenience and high quality care offered by GP at Hand.

‘Attempts to block people’s right to choose need to be exposed for what they are, particularly when the NHS is so greatly in need of innovation to cope with the increasing pressures on it.

‘We are making our technology available to GP practices up and down the country, and it would be much better for patients if advances like ours were welcomed by the BMA rather than attempts made to block them.’

Since the launch of the GP at Hand app in London, nearly 12,000 patients have signed up to Dr Jefferies and Partners, the West London practice working alongside Babylon.

But NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG, alongside NHS England, have suggested a ‘thorough on-going evaluation of the impact of the GP at Hand service’.

At a board meeting earlier this month, the CCG outlined that the evaluation would ‘include consideration of the CCG financial risk as well as how the development of GP at Hand would be considered in light of national policy around accountable and place-based care’, as well as ‘patient safeguarding’.

An initial review completed ahead of the launch by NHS England and the CCG, which saw the rollout delayed ‘due to a formal objection issued by NHS England’, concluded that the app was ‘innovative and had the potential to benefit patients and the wider care system’.

The team behind GP at Hand agreed to a more ‘restricted rollout‘, to four sites outside Hammersmith and Fulham instead of a proposed nine.

They said they would also restrict it to patients living or working within 30 to 40 minutes of a participating practice and only use locations which offer ‘full GMS services’ and where clinicians can see a full NHS medical record during appointments.

A Babylon Health spokesman said: ‘GP at Hand is going from strength to strength, delivering round the clock healthcare to thousands of people across the capital on a daily basis.

‘Commissioners have comprehensively signed off our roll-out plan and we look forward to working with them to expand GP at Hand across the country.’ 

What is Babylon’s ‘GP at Hand’ service?

Babylon launched the ‘GP at Hand’ service in November, promising that patients will be able to ‘book an appointment within seconds’ via its smartphone app and have ‘a video consultation with an NHS GP typically in under two hours of booking, anytime, anywhere’.

It seems to have proved popular with patients, with 7,000 joining the practice involved in the first month and a further 5,000 since then (according to the latest figures available).

But the service has encountered fierce opposition from GP leaders, in particular RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard who warned that the scheme was ‘cherry picking’ patients. The RCGP has since decided that it would no longer accept Babylon Health to sponsor its annual conference and the BMA is looking at the possibility of legal action.

Babylon had previously suffered a setback after CCGs in London decided not to proceed with plans to use the company’s ‘symptom checker’ app to triage patients when testing revealed there was a risk of ‘gaming the system to achieve a GP appointment’. But since launch, its service’s popularity among patients means that it is rapidly gaining ground despite what the GP profession think of it.