GPs and patients took to the streets of Tower Hamlets in East London last week to protest against further expansion of the “digital first” GP at Hand service, owned and created by Babylon Health.
The GP in Hand service is an app that can help patients book a video appointment with a healthcare professional at any time of day or night. Babylon claims consultations are available 24/7 and patients can usually be seen within two hours.
According to the British Medical Journal, the GPs and patients protesting the service claimed it will disrupt the care of patients most in need in the area and accused Babylon of targeting young, fit, and wealthy people – essentially hand-picking the healthiest patients while leaving those who are chronically ill with less access to GP services.
Babylon has attracted criticism in the past for its business model of employing its own doctors for online consultations via its GP at Hand service, rather than providing services for existing surgeries.
Speaking to HealthInvestor UK in August, professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said while technology “is playing an increasingly important part in the way we deliver care to our patients throughout the NHS”, she cautioned “we must be careful not to create a ‘digital divide’ between those patients who can afford it and are able to use it, and those who can’t”.
Some argue that by poaching their tech-savvy, younger patients, Babylon will leave many surgeries with older patients with complex needs and less money to treat them as a result of reduced capitation fees.
The issue also attracted attention in the House of Commons when back in April, MPs demanded an inquiry into the growth of the digital primary care service. The Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter, wrote to the chair of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee to say he was “increasingly alarmed” by the activities of the online consultation platform.
Slaughter raised concerns in a Commons debate about the “cherry-picking” of young patients; the rapid expansion of GP at Hand, public support for the service from health secretary Matt Hancock, and questioned the accuracy of the app’s diagnostic algorithm.