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NHS England denies direct involvement in Babylon’s GP at Hand app

NHS England has denied involvement in private company Babylon’s drive to sign up NHS patients to its GP at Hand app, after GP leaders questioned comments made by its chair.

Speaking at an event hosted by Babylon and attended by Londonwide LMCs, NHS England chair Professor Sir Malcolm Grant referred to GP at Hand – which promises an online consultation with an NHS GP within hours – as ‘the experiment that we have been conducting in London’.

But, clarifying the comments, an NHS England spokesperson said it had merely been involved in the commissioning and assessment of GP at Hand.

Speaking at Wednesday evening’s event, Professor Grant said: ‘The model that we have been working on in London, GP at Hand, I think is a very interesting pilot.’

And he said that NHS England has ‘paid very close attention to what [Babylon] has been doing, and what other companies have been doing’ because he thinks they are ‘at a tipping point in the way in which we will provide care’.

But, referring to concerns raised by GPs about the model, he added that NHS England had to be ‘desperately clear so we do not end up driving GPs out of practice and seeing this as an Uber-style rival’.

Instead he suggested it could be ‘something that can supplement, can support and can ease some of the burden of practice’.

He added that NHS England will shortly be publishing a consultation paper on digital-first medicine. This comes as Ipsos Mori recently won the the £250k bid to review the service’s ‘outcomes and impacts’ on behalf of NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG.

Since November last year, GP at Hand has used the GP out-of-area registration scheme to sign up over 30,000 patients from across London and beyond to a GP practice in Fulham in south west London. Patients are promised an online GP consultation within hours, and a next-day face-to-face appointment if required at a number of London hubs.

But GP leaders including the the BMALondonwide LMCs and the RCGP have raised concerns about the app’s ‘cherry picking’ of fit, young and healthy patients.

GP at Hand does not block anybody from using the service, but says people who are frail or elderly, pregnant or have severe mental health issues may be advised they are better serviced by a local practice, and according to Babylon NHS England is behind this.

‘To be prudent during the early phase of the rollout, the NHS has suggested that the service may however be less appropriate for people with the conditions and characteristics listed below,’ the GP at Hand website says.

Londonwide LMCs chief executive Dr Michelle Drage said: ‘GPs are meticulously careful about change because patient care and holistic care is too precious to meddle with without evidence of benefit. They would expect NHSE and commissioners to be equally cautious and impartial.

‘After seeing [this] presentation, we continue also to have significant questions about how and why a service such as GP at Hand, which undermines the financial model of NHS general practice, has been able to launch without any assessment of financial impact. And we call for transparent assurance of such new tech, operating outwith existing provision.’

Asked by Pulse to clarify Professor Grant’s comments, an NHS England spokesperson said that NHS England’s only involvement has been as part of Hammersmith and Fulham CCG’s GP at Hand ‘clinical assurance’ group, as well as working with the CCG to commission the independent review by Ipsos Mori.

A GP at Hand spokesperson declined to comment.

Speaking at a conference last week, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said the NHS has ‘a lot to learn’ from Babylon’s ‘phenomenal’ GP at Hand app, which she said was ‘disrupting’ general practice.