NHS England reviewing safety regulations around GP diagnostic apps

NHS England is reviewing the regulations that apply to GP diagnostic apps, such as Babylon's GP at Hand, so that patients can be assured of their safety, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has said.

(Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Hancock said that the rules were being reviewed to ensure they 'keep up to pace' with new technology.

His words came in response to health select committee chair and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who raised concerns that ‘no regulator is prospectively examining the safety and effectiveness of diagnostic apps in the NHS’.

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The pros and cons of online symptom checkers

Dr Wollaston said: ‘I wrote to [Mr Hancock’s] predecessor recently following concerns that were raised with me about Babylon’s apps, which could be missing symptoms of meningitis and heart attack, for example. What steps will the secretary of state take to ensure that, as these technologies are rolled out, patients can have absolute confidence that they have been properly evaluated for safety and effectiveness?’

Mr Hancock replied: ‘The thing about new technology is that the rules sometimes need to be updated to take changes in technology into account. The response when there are challenges such as the one my honourable friend raises is not to reject the technology, but the opposite: to keep improving the technology so that it gets better and better, and to make sure that the rules keep up to pace.

‘I spoke to Simon Stevens at NHS England about this only this morning –we have had a series of conversations in the past couple of weeks since I have been in post – and he is reviewing this exact question. I am absolutely sure that we will get to the right answer.’

'The important thing is to ensure that the rules are kept up to date so that we can get the benefits of the new technology, but make sure that it works in a way that ensures everybody gets high-quality primary care,' he added.

Mr Hancock is himself a GP at Hand patient and an advocate of making use of digital technology. In his first speech as health secretary he said the NHS should harness new technology like Babylon's GP at Hand app, and make it available to everyone.

GP at Hand

Yesterday afternoon, during his first appearance in front of the health and social care select committee, Mr Hancock expanded on his plans for technology, stating that many GPs’ concerns about the controversial GP at Hand model were ‘misplaced’.

He said: ‘Here is a new technology that has the potential to significantly improve the way that many patients can access the NHS. This sort of technology is coming. The question is how can we bring it about in a way that best supports the NHS as a whole and ensures that we get better care as a result.’

Babylon has repeatedly said that its service is safe. Earlier this month a GP at Hand spokesperson said that ‘with immediate 24/7 access to GPs, fully-recorded consultations and high levels of staff motivation and engagement, safety levels far higher than traditional general practice are able to be delivered.’

Babylon has produced a statement on the safety of its products and services, which says: ‘Integral to our clinical safety approach is the clinical evaluation of all products, and the clinical safety and risk management processes that are in place across all products and services. To ensure the continued safety and effectiveness of any products in a live environment the above elements are regularly reviewed and updated, overseen by a clinical safety team, and documented in the clinical safety management system, as per recognised NHS Digital safety standards.

‘Prior to deployment of the triage system within the NHS service a thorough process of due diligence was undertaken alongside NHS England colleagues. A recent review of the hazard log - an industry-standard component of a clinical safety and risk management - conducted with representatives of NHS England and NHS Digital highlighted no significant concerns.’

Last year NHS England began allocating £45m of funding to support the implementation of online consultations in primary care. Some of the systems that CCGs may choose to fund provide access to online symptom checkers that can be hosted on a practice's website.

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