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Hancock touts his support for controversial GP at Hand service

Health secretary says GP at Hand helps deliver a better service and that he wants to help the app expand across the country, as he highlights importance of embracing technology

Smartphone apps and services like GP at Hand helps deliver a better health service, according to health secretary Matt Hancock.

The controversial smartphone app, by Babylon Health, officially launched in early 2017, and allows patients in some areas to register with the on-demand service, giving them access to a GP 24/7 through virtual consultations. It also gives patients access to a symptom checker, driven by Babylon’s artificial intelligence (AI) tool.

In a speech at Babylon’s headquarters yesterday (13 September), Hancock said he himself uses the GP at Hand service and that it ultimately “helps to deliver a better service”.

He added that by expanding GP at Hand, it is paving the way for other technology companies, apps and systems, as Hancock wants to develop a whole ecosystem “so patients across the country get the best possible healthcare”, and the UK becomes the “best health tech nation on earth”.

“I care about helping GP at Hand to expand,” he said. “Not because I want to help Babylon, but because I want the rules to be in place and the system to work so that those loads of companies can come and do what Babylon is doing.”

Touting the importance of technology in the NHS, Hancock said that the GP at Hand app “works for patients”, but added that it doesn’t “necessarily work for all patients”.

“And an online service is never going to work for all patients. Nor should it,” he said.

Funded by the NHS

The GP at Hand service is funded by the NHS and run by NHS Hammersmith and Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), together with NHS England. The contract is held by a specific GP practice in Hammersmith and Fulham, and along with a few other hubs across London, that’s where those needing physical consultations can go.

Its main growth has been in London, but it has recently worked on expanding to Birmingham. However, local clinical commissioning groups in the Birmingham region objected to the expansion, citing concerns about how patients will access certain services, as they have so far been unable to find a way to ensure national screening services invitations are sent to the right address. So far NHS England has upheld the objection.

The service has also faced criticism by the Unite union, whose members wrote to the then health secretary Jeremy Hunt in June 2018, stating it “threatens the very survival of NHS general practice”. 

Local GPs in the London region have also been skeptical, claiming that it tricks patients into de-registering from their local practice. Another criticism has been that its mainly targeted at those who are young, fit and healthy and excludes pregnant women, elderly people, people with learning difficulties, drug dependence or those living with “complex mental health conditions”.

Hancock said in his speech that he recognises that concerns have been raised, especially about impact on the system as a whole, and there are concerns that the algorithm should be as least as good as – if not better – than a human GP.

“Where we find a problem, the solution isn’t to reject new technology, it’s to improve the technology,” he said.

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Instead of rejecting the technology, he said, the NHS needs to take a “sandbox approach to how we make the system work with this new technology”.

“Where the system doesn’t fit within the existing rules, the answer is to look at those rules and make sure those rules are themselves iterated,” he said, adding that this is both for the new service, but also to protect existing services.

He added that even the GP at Hand service has improvements to make.

“I’d like to see more interoperability with the rest of primary care. When I moved over to GP at Hand I lost my entire medical history which was written on paper in my GP surgery,” he said.  

Hancock’s speech at Babylon’s headquarters coincided with Babylon announcing plans to invest £75m to create the world’s largest team dedicated to building next-generation AI healthcare technologies.

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