GP at Hand granted permission to expand to Birmingham

NHS England has approved the expansion of Babylon GP at Hand to Birmingham in a move GP leaders have said is 'incredibly disappointing' and 'premature'.

Smartphone consultations (Photo: iStock.com/Georgijevic)
Smartphone consultations (Photo: iStock.com/Georgijevic)

The decision to allow its expansion to a second major city comes just a month before the final results of a £250,000 evaluation into the impact of GP at Hand are expected to be published.

The evaluation is assessing its effects on patients, the wider health service and the workforce - and an interim report late last year found its cost-effectiveness was difficult to assess because of the overwhelmingly young, fit population that has signed up.

Officials had previously blocked the expansion of the controversial digital first service over concerns about screening and access to clinical pathways.

GP at Hand

An NHS England spokesperson said a solution had been found to resolve these concerns and confirmed officials would now work with NHS Hammersmith and Fulham CCG - which hosts the service in London - and Birmingham and Solihull CCG along with screening services to agree a date when the service would be expanded.

A spokesperson for Babylon GP at Hand welcomed the decision. The spokesperson said: 'We welcome the decision to allow the expansion of Babylon GP at Hand to people living and working in Birmingham.

'The NHS long-term plan and GP contract framework set the vision for digital-first primary care and we look forward to making this a reality, in Birmingham and across the country. We will continue to work closely with NHS commissioners, regulators and local providers on the safe and effective delivery of all our services.'

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which is not only premature, but flies in the face of place-based care delivered by practices embedded in local communities, which the recent changes in the GP contract are committed to deliver.

'The independent evaluation into GP at Hand is yet to publish its findings, so it is wholly inappropriate to allow this service’s expansion with no assurances over its safety and effectiveness.

Expansion

'The well-documented problems that GP at Hand patients have experienced in London, as well as the disruption it has caused to local funding arrangements, will likely only be replicated in new cities if the service is rolled out there.

'Following this decision, NHS England must make it their priority – as promised in the GP contract agreement – to complete its review into the out-of-area arrangements that GP at Hand has exploited for too long.

'The Secretary of State has been clear in his ambitions for tech and the NHS, and equally, GPs would like to offer video consultations to their own patients. These patients would benefit far more from being seen by a doctor close by and with a full understanding of their medical history, rather than someone miles away from their home. But to make this a reality, there must be investment in practice IT infrastructure – including improved broadband capability in surgeries – to create a level playing field with private companies such as Babylon.'

To date, Babylon GP at Hand has been available to patients living or working in zones one to three of London and people within a short travel time of one of five clinics where it can offer face-to-face consultations if required.

Since November 2017 when Babylon GP at Hand was opened up beyond the catchment area of the practice hosting the service, just under 40,000 new patients have switched from their existing practice to register.

A total of 87% of new patients who have signed up are aged between 20 and 39 years old - sparking accusations of 'cherry picking', which the service denies.

The NHS England spokesperson said: 'As set out in the long-term Plan, the NHS will see an increasing use of digital technology and from 2021 every patient in England will have access to online and video consultation - if they choose it - and this practice is just one of the ways of providing that.'

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