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Babylon launches ‘troll’ attack on doctor who tested AI app

Babylon, the provider of GP at Hand, has labelled a doctor who tested its AI app and reported the results on social media as a ‘troll’.

In a 700-word+ statement, it describes how a ‘Twitter troll’ spends ‘hundreds of hours conducting 2,400 tests’ on its chatbot function app, which allows patients to answer questions about their symptoms and then gives ‘treatment advice’, according to its site.

It claims that Dr David Watkins, a consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden who goes by the name @DrMurphy11 on Twitter, ‘posted over 6,000 misleading attacks’.

However, Dr Watkins told Pulse that he simply inputted ‘red flag presentations and common issues’, such as colds, chest pain and breathlessness, and found that the app didn’t always give correct advice.

Pulse carried out an investigation last year on the growing influence of medical apps, and found that they often took a more cautious approach.

Babylon, which markets itself as ‘the UK’s leading digital health provider’, claims: ‘@DrMurphy11 has trolled us at every turn. At every stage, we have attempted to start a positive conversation with this anonymous person. We have invited him in to start a dialogue, to test our AI, and to meet with the senior doctors who build our products. We have corresponded with him openly and honestly when he has brought issues to our attention.

‘We have repeatedly opened our doors, but revealingly he prefers to troll on Twitter. He refused to meet us.

‘As a scientific organisation, we are all about evidence.’

Babylon’s post continued: ‘So today we’re making a big offer: @DrMurphy11 now that you have stepped out from behind your computer, why not be part of an open, independent analysis of your AI testing: publish the entirety of your work, and let the totality of your data be assessed by any objective expert.’

Speaking to Pulse, Dr Watkins said he first raised concerns about the AI-based site in 2017. When issues reached a ‘critical’ level in May 2018, with ‘dangerous flaws’ ‘missing red flag presentations’, he requested a meeting with Babylon and regulatory authorities, but this was not acknowledged.

In February 2019, he continued to identify potential risk, and again flagged this with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

He received a response from MHRA in August 2019, but felt the necessary measures were not being implemented to protect patients from harm.

Dr Watkins added: ‘As an anonymous entity, your voice isn’t as strong, in this situation’.

He then decided to go public over social media.

However, he was subsequently approached by a Babylon employee, who was also a fellow at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM).

He said: ‘I had what I felt were constructive conversations with Babylon’s leadership team,’ at Monday’s digital health conference at the RSM, where he and Babylon publicly met for the first time.

‘I raised my concerns with the flaws in the chatbot being unaddressed, in conjunction with their overblown hype.

‘If a chatbot is just flawed, fair enough, but when they’ve gone around and said: “this is 100% safe, this is as good as a doctor, it can diagnose” – you can’t have it both ways.

‘I had expected, after those discussions, a more mature response from Babylon, but they have gone back to trying to silence the voice of the person with concerns, discrediting them and being dismissive of criticism.’

Dr Watkins continued: ‘I consider it to be mildly threatening, in terms of a company which says: “raise concerns about us, and we’ll go after you”.

‘I’m a jobbing doctor, I have no associations with health tech or AI – I come at this from a perspective of patient safety, and the one thing that stifles patient safety is people not feeling that they can speak up freely when they’ve got concerns.

‘How are people working within the company meant to speak up, if this is what they see as the behaviour of the company?’

Looking ahead, Dr Watkins believes questions must be asked of why the regulatory authorities took so long to address the issue, and why Babylon were ‘allowed to go ahead with such bold promotional claims, despite concerns being raised’.

He planned since last year to reveal his identity at Monday’s event, where Babylon representatives presented before he did, in which they mentioned the ‘Twitter troll’ claim.

‘So it was clearly something they had anticipated’, said Dr Watkins.

Babylon’s unparalleled post has created significant discussion within the medical community.

Christina Farr, of American business news site CNBC, tweeted: ‘Calling a critic a “troll” because they’ve uncovered evidence of problems that led to the company *fixing them* and making their technology safer for patients is another level.’