Today NHS England has announced its decision to grant GP at Hand permission to expand its services to Birmingham. The app – which is strongly supported by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is a customer of the app – boasts of being able to provide users with either same day or next day face-to-face appointments with a GP across several locations in central London. It also allows users to have prescriptions dispensed to a location of their choosing, and it contends it has a chatbot powered by world leading artificial intelligence allowing it to undertake diagnostic, and triage functions, with the same precision as a real doctor.
However, the app has been mired in controversy since its roll out in London. The app was rebuked by the advertising standards agency for failing to make clear to users that they would have to de-register from their current GP surgery in order to use its services. The prestigious peer reviewed science journal the Lancet, contended that the apps’ artificial intelligence could not perform diagnostic functions with the same precision as a real doctor; the study found that the chatbot was most likely to put patient safety at risk.
GPs have also pointed out that the app cherry picks younger, more mobile and healthier patients; the bulk of the apps’ patients range from being 20 – 45 years of age. GPs and other healthcare professionals argue that in turn this this leaves traditional GP practices with less funds as those younger patient’s de-register in order to use the app. Thereby leaving traditional practices with depleted funds but having to care for patients with more complex, long-term and therefore financially costly needs.
These scandals led to Birmingham and Solihull CCG – the CCG Babylon intends to be registered to for its Birmingham operations – to write to Hammersmith and Fulham CCG - the CCG the app is registered to in London - to request that its roll-out to Birmingham be blocked.
This request was originally granted, and the rollout was blocked, with NHS England commissioning Ipsos Mori to undertake a review to assess the service, and the Care Quality Commission stepping in to assess whether the service is undermining general practice. These reviews are both currently ongoing. A National Health Action Party spokesperson reacted to news of the decision stating:
“NHS England’s decision is a blow to evidence-based policy making. It is unfathomable why GP at Hand would be given the green light to expand whilst we are still awaiting the independent assessments of Ipsos Mori and the Care Quality Commission.
The recent revelations that GP at Hand has cost its host CCG, Hammersmith and Fulham CCG, to fall into serious financial difficulties to the degree that it has had to be bailed out by other cash strapped London CCGs to the tune of millions of pounds, just adds to the nonsensical nature of the decision.
The National Health Action Party has consistently pointed out the dangers this app poses to general practice. The app should not be rolled out across England. It should be scrapped, and the government and the British Medical Association have a duty to listen to GPs who recently, and unanimously, voted for the app to be scrapped. Instead, we currently have a Health Secretary who is not only a customer of the app, but one who has appeared in advertorials paid for by the app. Breaking the ministerial code and undermining the very institution he is meant to be supporting, improving and protecting”