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Hammersmith and Fulham MP Andy Slaughter has expressed concern over the technology underpinning Babylon Health’s app GP at Hand and has called for an inquiry into the service.
In a letter to Health and Social Care Committee chair Sarah Wollaston, Slaughter set out multiple areas of concern about the app, including the software’s robustness and its ability to deal with the range of conditions that it is proposing to diagnose and treat.
Further points raised by Slaughter about the app, which provides AI (artificial intelligence)-powered diagnoses and online consultations with doctors from a GP practice in Fulham, included worries over the software’s reliability in referring patients to specialists when needed.
The “very public support” given to the app by health secretary – and user of the tool – Matt Hancock was also part of Slaughter’s concerns. The MP said Hancock’s praise of the app may be hampering the ability of NHS staff and government stakeholders to fully question and scrutinise the technology.
Slaughter said Babylon had created an “inverted pyramid” structure in which the tool is competing with GPs, and that there is no indication that GPs and the NHS welcome such digitisation.
But his overarching concern is the app’s financial impact on public sector finances. Slaughter pointed out that the GP practice’s patient list had grown exponentially to 48,000 patients, making it one of the UK’s 10 biggest practices.
The MP noted that the app’s growth had created a funding problem for the Hammersmith & Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which has an accumulated deficit of at least £26m for 2018-2020, which could “grow markedly” as the service expands nationwide.
The Labour MP said running a service at such scale had distorted the patient list size and the funding of the practice where the service operates.
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In response to Slaughter’s comments, Babylon said it welcomed the views of government and regulators and said it could show how it is using technology to address demands and shortages in funding that are impacting healthcare.
The company said its clinical services and technology had been “thoroughly tested and are continuously reviewed and assured” by UK healthcare bodies including NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, NHS Digital and local NHS CCGs.
Babylon used NHS Digital data from October 2018 to illustrate the point that its service does a better job than the public health service. It pointed out that 20% of GP patients have to wait two to seven days for an appointment, 14.5% have to wait eight to 14 days and 18% have to wait more than two weeks.
“In contrast, Babylon’s patients can usually get a video consultation within two hours, often within 30 minutes,” it said. “Consultations can happen at any time of day or night, 365 days of the year, and there is no need to wait for a surgery to be open, nor problems with getting through on the phone or waiting on hold.”