Exclusive NHSX and NHS England are considering the viability of a wider roll out of an artificial intelligence triage model based on that used by Babylon, Pulse understands.
A senior delegation from NHS England and NHSX last month visited University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust (UHB) to look at its use of the Babylon technology, Pulse has learned.
The visit came days before NHS England issued a letter to all GP practices, ordering them to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients if that is their preference and open their receptions for walk-ins.
However, the health secretary – an advocate for digital-first services – had previously indicated that GPs should continue current levels of remote consulting after the pandemic.
NHSX has said it is ‘not working on a national programme involving Babylon’.
But Pulse can reveal that on 10 May, NHSX chief executive and chief digital officer Matthew Gould and Tara Donnelly and NHS England chief financial officer and chief operating officer Julian Kelly and Amanda Pritchard attended UHB.
Pulse understands that NHSX and NHS England are looking into the feasibility of using the app-based triage model similar to that used by Babylon – which was launched at UHB in April last year – across England.
It followed a similar visit by health secretary Matt Hancock in April.
NHS England has previously looked into the viability of rolling out the Babylon model more widely, including pilots in North West London, but an assessment concluded it was unfeasible.
In 2019, an NHS England consultation on digital services revealed plans to make it easier for digital-first providers such as Babylon to open physical practices in deprived areas, by reforming out-of-area patient registration rules that had allowed Babylon’s NHS GP at Hand to expand. The plans were approved later that year.
NHS England started pursuing changes to the GP contract to boost more ‘digital-first’ GP consultations, along the lines of what Babylon has to offer, in 2018.
At the time, it said it aimed to enable ‘full adoption’ of digital primary care models which will likely have ‘transformed’ general practice ‘by the end of the next decade’.
Babylon has said that its AI triage ‘Covid care assistant’ app builds on the triage technology of its ‘ask A&E’ symptom checker. It also offers live chat, virtual consultation and referral functions.
Announcing its rollout at UHB and the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust last year, Babylon said that discussions with ‘NHS organisations across the country’ were ‘progressing at pace’ and that a ‘second wave’ of partnerships was ‘anticipated shortly’.
The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust also rolled out the technology in May last year.
In Wolverhampton, 10 local GP practices partnered with the trust and Babylon in a 10-year project allowing GPs and hospital doctors to share their filmed consultations with each other and allowing patients to view the videos and access their records and triage services through an app.
Concerns have been raised around the safety of triage apps, including by the CQC and a doctor who was labelled a ‘troll’ by Babylon after he tested its AI app and reported the results on social media.
In 2019, the NHS long-term plan pledged that everyone who wants them will be able to have digital GP appointments within the next five years.