Digital GP services run by private provider Babylon have been given the green light to expand into Birmingham and add to the 40,000 NHS patients that it has so far recruited from its West London base.
In a U turn NHS England has lifted its block on the company expanding the service. It was imposed following complaints from local CCGs that the digital GP service was cherry-picking younger, fitter patients and undermining other local services.
Babylon GP at Hand provides video appointments with a GP within 2 hours and diagnosis tools though its own app. It is not suitable for many patients who need face-to-face care, but has proved attractive to younger NHS patients and 40,000 have signed up, leaving their local GP.
Permission from NHS England to extend the service appears to pre-empt the publication of an independent review into GP at Hand, which it commissioned and is due to be published in March.
Concern has already been voiced that investigations into the service are not robust enough. Researchers IPSOS MORI admitted in a preliminary report that they would not be able to fully evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the service.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told Pulse:
‘We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which is not only premature, but flies in the face of place-based care delivered by practices embedded in local communities, which the recent changes in the GP contract are committed to deliver.’
Babylon has welcomed the decision and hinted at further plans to go countrywide with their digital GP service.
Under the government’s GP choice scheme patients are able to apply to register with any participating GP practice away from home. Figures from NHS England show that most practices have no out of area patients at all. Babylon are using the scheme to compete for NHS patients, registering tens of thousands of new patients as ‘out of area’.
The Health Secretary, who is himself signed up to the GP at Hand service has made digital solutions a key priority, but has been criticised for appearing to offer his personal backing to Babylon, which Labour suggests breaks the ministerial code.
Prior to this week’s announcement it had appeared that Babylon’s plans were being curbed, as recent rule changes restricted the rewards that the company could earn for registering new patients. However, the permission to extend the service has invited new criticism that the digital service is being unfairly supported by the government.
According to reports in the Telegraph Babylon Health already has plans to expand GP at Hand into Southampton, Manchester and Leeds.
In Birmingham the clinical Commissioning Group that had originally objected to Babylon is now backing the service. Paul Jennings, the CCG’s chief executive told Digital Health:
“Working in close collaboration with our GP provider organisations, we are supporting the development of a local digital offer that will help to transform the lives of our 1.3 million patients.
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