Babylon Health has started offering their online GP service up as a replacement to regular GP practices across London, with plans to expand the service to the rest of England.
But GP leaders warned that the company was ‘cherry picking’ patients, ‘creating a twin-track approach to NHS general practice’.
The company has launched its service to London patients, via a GMS contract, with plans for ‘rolling out across the country in the near future’.
It promises 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 says patients will also be able to have ‘an in-person appointment if needed at convenient city centre locations on the same or next day’ as well as having precriptions delivered to ‘a pharmacy of their choice’.
In a letter to patients seen by Pulse, Babylon said: ‘Anyone switching their registered NHS GP practice to GP at hand will continue to get 24/7 access to all the Babylon features with the additional benefit of being able to see an NHS GP in minutes on their phone for free.’
When patients need to see a GP in person, they can choose GP clinics in Canary Wharf, Victoria, Liverpool Street and Euston and get an appointment on the same or next day, Monday to Saturday.
Babylon Health said that it had trialled the service in Fulham with ‘thousands’ of patients and the service had now been launched across London with ‘other cities to follow’.
Babylon said, however, that patients with the following conditions could be excluded from the service:
- Women who are or may be pregnant
- Adults with a safeguarding need
- People living with complex mental health conditions
- People with complex physical, psychological and social needs
- People living with dementia
- Older people with conditions related to frailty
- People requiring end of life care
- Parents of children who are on the ‘Child at risk’ protection register
- People with learning difficulties
- People with drug dependence
Babylon Health medical director and GP Dr Mobasher Butt said: ‘We can put patients in front of a GP within minutes on their phone, so the days of ringing frantically at 8am for an appointment should be long gone.’
Dr Charles Alessi, a GP and senior advisor at Public Health England said: ‘The GP at Hand service is a true NHS primary care service – helping people stay healthy as well as looking after them when they are sick. People want to be in control of their health, and through Babylon’s technology GP at Hand makes that possible. ‘
But RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard warned of unintended consequences of the new service.
She said: ‘Some patients will see this as a “golden ticket” to get quick and easy access to a GP – and for younger, healthier commuters it could prove a solution to long waiting times for an appointment.
‘We are really worried that schemes like this are creating a twin-track approach to NHS general practice and that patients are being ‘cherry-picked’, which could actually increase the pressures on traditional GPs based in the community.’
She added that the RCGP was concerned patients were ‘being given the option of switching back to their local surgery if they are not satisfied with the level of service offered by the app’.
‘As well as issues with patient confidentiality and the safety of the patient record, it is hard to see how this could be achieved without adding to the huge burden of red tape that GPs are already grappling with,’ she said.
‘While this scheme is backed by the NHS and offers a free service to patients, it is undoubtedly luring GPs away from frontline general practice at a time when we are facing a severe workforce crisis and hardworking GPs are struggling to cope with immense workloads,’ she added.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘While these proposals appear to be focused on making access to a GP easier, in reality it will divert patients away from their GP and practice and leaves them receiving care from doctors who don’t know them as well as their own GP would do.
‘This approach risks undermining the quality and continuity of care and further fragmenting the service provided to the public. It is also delivered by a private company that is primarily cherry picking younger, generally healthier people and excluding many others.
‘It will do nothing to help the growing number of older, vulnerable patients who need well funded services that can provide the specialist care they need in the community.’
But Babylon Health said pilots had seen ‘a broad range of patients benefiting from being able to see a GP quickly and at the patient’s convenience, including elderly patients who find it difficult to get to surgeries because of mobility problems’.
A spokesperson told Pulse: ‘The RCGP are completely incorrect to say certain groups of people are not eligible or excluded for this service.
‘As in line with NHS guidance, for patients with certain conditions, as with any other care provider, our doctors will assess patients needs and in some circumstances may recommend other care is more appropriate and guide patients through getting that care, at all times putting the needs of the patient first.’
Babylon has previously aimed to replace call handlers in the NHS 111 service with a pilot of its triage app using machine learning to hone the accuracy of the recommendations it gives to patients.