Babylon signs 10-year 'integrated digital health' deal with NHS trust that runs 10 GP practices

The company behind controversial video service GP at Hand has partnered with an NHS hospital trust that runs 10 GP practices - and plans to deliver the 'world's first integrated digital health system' to 300,000 patients across the region.

(Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
(Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Under a 10-year deal with the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, which has completed the takeover of 10 GP practices in recent years through a 'vertical integration' scheme, Babylon says it will help deliver joined-up care for 300,000 people in the city and surrounding areas.

Patients will have access to video consultations with both GPs and hospital doctors along with real-time disease monitoring tools through an app, Babylon said, with the first services expected to go live later this year.

The move is the latest significant step into NHS provision from a company that has seen the number of patients registered with its GP at Hand service expand from less than 5,000 just over two years ago to more than 70,000 now.

Babylon contract

The BMA said it was 'wary of contracts handed to the private sector that cover long periods of time' - and called for more detail to be made public over the terms of the deal, its cost and whether patients and local doctors had been adequately consulted.

Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust chief executive David Loughton said: 'I am delighted to announce this long-term partnership with Babylon who will work alongside the trust’s primary, secondary and community care teams to deliver transformational changes to the way we deliver care.'

He said patients 'of all ages and backgrounds' were keen to use 'technology that will improve access and give them greater control of their own health, wellbeing and social inclusion'.

'It should be normal for a patient with a long-term condition to take a blood-test at home,' Mr Loughton said, 'and have the results fed into their app which alerts the specialist if they need an appointment. The patient chooses a time to meet, has the consultation through the app, works with their specialist to build a care plan, and the app encourages them to complete it while assessing the impact it’s having. This is our vision for properly joined-up and integrated care.'

He said there was a consensus among clinicians that technology could help release more time to care for the most complex patients.

NHS workforce

Mr Loughton added: 'Workforce is the biggest challenge facing healthcare in the NHS and internationally. In the next 10 years the gap between staff needed and the number available could reach almost 250,000 just in England. As medicine transforms over the next 10 years, and cutting-edge technology improves, it is critical that the NHS develops a digitally empowered workforce.'

The GP at Hand service, which operates under a franchising arrangement with what was once a small west London GP practice, looks set to continue its rapid growth after being granted permission to expand its patient list in Birmingham and with a further expansion to Manchester expected this year.

The service has been accused of 'cherry picking' - which it denies - because more than 85% of patients registered with it are aged between 20 and 39 years old, and BMA leaders have strongly criticised the government's decision to allow its rapid expansion over concerns that the move is undermining existing GP services.

Annual accounts published by the company behind Babylon show that its losses in 2018 almost tripled to £65m. The company has said it has attracted significant investment that will be used to drive expansion both domestically and internationally.

Contract award

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul told GPonline: 'We need details of the process that was followed to award this contract, its overall value and whether local doctors and patients were consulted on and approved such widespread changes.

'Will this really service the needs of the most vulnerable patients, who are often those least able to use new technology, or will it in fact worsen health inequalities?'

The BMA chair called for assurances over the safety and value for money of the technology involved and highlighted 'concerns around patient data being handled at such large scale by a private company'.

Doctors Association UK GP lead Dr Yaso Browne said the Wolverhampton plans could destabilise existing general practice. She warned that NHS hospitals were already under unprecedented pressure, and said it was 'extremely worrying' to see changes that could threaten the GP gatekeeper role when the need for primary care to manage demand was greater than ever.

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