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Fri 19 July 2019
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Babylon Healthcare’s GP At Hand app has led to one tiny medical centre in London now serving more than 48,000 patients. MP Andy Slaughter calls for an inquiry into digital services undermining the NHS.

The staggering expansion of one GP practice is sparking calls for a parliamentary inquiry.

In 2017, Dr Jeffries and Partners’ Medical Centre, based in Fulham, west London, adopted digital services via an app called GP at Hand’, run by a company called Babylon. Up until that point, the small medical centre served approximately 2,500 patients locally, according to the Care Quality Commission.

Since then, the practice has been able to register a staggering 1820% more patients – approximately 48,000 – on its online service, even if they do not live in the area. The average GP list consists of 2,000 patients.

When patients sign up to Babylon’s app, they are removed from the list of their previous GP and are registered to the practice in Fulham. It is uncertain whether all these patients understand that signing up to the App means they are leaving their current GP’s list and will be registered to Dr Jeffries & Partners’ surgery.

The NHS practice in Fulham, west London, that now looks after 48,000 patients. Photo by Alex Varley-Winter

Patients using the app are offered a digital service inquiring about their symptoms, or remote consultations via telephone. If they need to see a doctor in person, they are offered an appointment at one of five locations with GPs working for Babylon Healthcare Services.

The small GP’s practice has, as a result, become one of the largest in the country and is now expanding its service to Birmingham.

Last year, Babylon adverts promising NHS doctor appointments “in minutes” were ruled as “misleading” by the Advertising Standards Authority because the service did not explain that the user would first have to leave their own GP and that their new registration could take up to three weeks. At the time, a Babylon spokesman said: “We think the process of ‘registering’ is self-evident and clearly understood by the public”.

Andy Slaughter is spearheading calls for an inquiry into what he claims is a ‘distortion’ of the NHS primary care and costs his constituency at least £26 million.

However, that the app takes users off their GP lists could potentially undermine the financial stability of NHS primary care. GPs are paid a set sum per capita for their patient lists and because younger, healthier tech-savvy patients are more likely to use the smartphone app, this could lead to existing lists becoming overstretched and unsustainable due to being dominated by less healthy and more time-demanding patients.

Babylon Health Care denies it is taking money from other practices by having younger patients. They told Byline Times that “there is a Carr-Hill formula that is the basis for how NHS GP clinics are funded. It weights payments by age and gender, as well as other factors so that practices are paid depending on who registers with them. The amount varies from below £35 per 15-44 man, to over £190 for each person over the age of 85.” “It does not exclude anyone,” the company said and is designed to provide medical services “for people of all ages”.

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Calls for a Parliamentary Inquiry into Hancock’s Digital Strategy

Hammersmith and Fulham MP Andy Slaughter is spearheading calls for an inquiry into the “wild West” Babylon app he claims is creating a “distortion” in the NHS primary care system under the commercial imperatives of one company.

In a parliamentary debate this week, Mr Slaughter said: “It is the way of the wild west to simply allow one particular firm to start from one location and expand across the country at a rate that it determines, controlled only by its advertising budget and its ability to attract customers.”

Its rapid expansion leaves the NHS “jumping to the tune that is being played by GP at Hand,” he added.

This particular private provider has had the support of the Secretary of State for Health from the beginning. He is a subscriber and has written about it in glowing terms.

Andy Slaughter MP

Mr Slaughter said that he has heard from clinicians that his local Hammersmith and Fulham CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) that its services – already in a weakened state – were being deprived of £26 million a year by the GP at Hand app’s removal of younger patients who help to subsidise GP lists.

“There is a perfectly understandable resistance from local GPs and CCGs to allowing those [younger] patients to escape,” he said.

Babylon Healthcare told the Byline Times it “welcomes scrutiny from any governing group or regulator, as we are proud to demonstrate how we can use our technology to work with the NHS and help it cope with the rising demands.”

On the issue of the Fulham practice and the impact on Hammersmith and Fulham CCG and NHS England that the issue “needs to be resolved” but that “people have a right to choose their NHS GP practice and nearly 50,000 have chosen Babylone GP at Hand”.

The Labour MP said that the most “contentious” issue of the matter was Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s personal approval of the app and enthusiasm for Babylon’s product.

“This particular private provider has had the support of the Secretary of State for Health from the beginning. He is a subscriber and has written about it in glowing terms,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson to The Pulse last year: “As the health secretary has made clear in the past, he holds no portfolio for any particular company or brand and regularly champions the benefits of a range of technologies which can improve patient outcomes, free up clinicians’ time and make every pound go further.”

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