Andy Slaughter MP: "Companies like Babylon need to be servant rather than master"
Writing for The Parliamentary Review, Andy Slaughter MP argues that Babylon's GP at Hand service is a large risk to the sustainability of Hammersmith and Fulham CCG.
After being fobbed off by ministers and the NHS, on 5 June I raised the issue of digital and app-based access to GPs at prime minister’s questions. Or, more precisely, I queried the role of private digital provider Babylon GP at Hand, which currently serves over 50,000 patients across the southeast from a single surgery in Fulham and has persuaded the NHS to let it go nationwide.
This is not an objection to remote GP access or digital per se. Starting from NHS Direct and 111 to telephone consultations, we now see working examples of tech companies servicing GP networks.
But GP at Hand is different. It seeks to dominate the GP market from a single point using a model that lacks sufficient testing and evaluation, captures a particular segment of patients – younger with fewer co-morbidities – and causes huge financial risks to the host CCG. It is far from clear if and how the almost £35 million they have cost my local CCG Hammersmith and Fulham will be refunded.
GP at Hand has been given the benefit of the doubt over patient selection, poaching, lack of transparency and now expansion beyond London. Its too close association with the health secretary, who is a subscriber and cheerleader, is credited with enabling this
Clinicians and professional bodies as well as the Labour frontbench and local campaigners have all expressed concern that this is the tail wagging the NHS dog. But even if GP at Hand is brought to heel, there are deeper concerns that have not been addressed at all.
If, as a recent evaluation found, it is the worried who are being fast-tracked through the service, will that distort the application of limited NHS funds? And if Babylon, an international operation registered in Jersey, is the beneficiary of this transfer of funds, will that mean monies lost not just to the NHS but to the health economy?
I don’t know anyone who wants the NHS to live in the analogue age, but companies like Babylon need to be servant rather than master. This is not the first time the NHS risks tripping up on the technology path. They should pause and plan.