RCGP chair hits out at tech firms 'siphoning off' young patients

Technology firms such as Babylon are creating a digital divide in the NHS by 'siphoning off' young patients through services including the controversial GP at Hand, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard told the college's annual conference on Thursday.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)

In her keynote speech at the RCGP annual conference 2018 in Glasgow, Professor Stokes-Lampard hit out at 'bully boy' tactics used by technology firms when they face criticism.

In her second conference as RCGP chair, the Staffordshire GP rubbished claims that doctors are ‘technophobic dinosaurs’ - pointing out that GPs have long been willing to adopt new technology.

But Professor Stokes-Lampard warned that general practice is being held back by a lack of funding to invest in new IT tools. She called on all four UK governments to 'make the NHS the market leader for medical technology' and for the government in England 'to commit to having e-consultation facilities in every GP practice by 2022 and ensure that every practice across the UK has high-speed broadband capability'.

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Read Professor Stokes-Lampard's speech in full

The RCGP chair also warned that new technology must be thoroughly tested and evaluated before being rolled out as part of the NHS.

GP at Hand

The technology behind GP at Hand - a service offering rapid access to video consultations with NHS GPs that has used out-of-area patient registration rules to sign up tens of thousands of predominantly young patients - is 'impressive', the RCGP chair said.

But she challenged how the service targets new patients, warning that it threatens the financial model of traditional NHS general practice, 'whereby the funding for fit and well people helps pay for the sick and needy'.

GP at Hand says it aims to 'provide a great service to everyone who wants to register' - but its website says the service 'may be less appropriate' for pregnant women and a wide range of patients with potentially complex needs. Doctors' leaders have accused  the service of 'cherry picking' young, fit patients.

Professor Stokes-Lampard's comments come just days after RCGP vice chair of external affairs Professor Martin Marshall warned health secretary Matt Hancock against 'deaf enthusiasm' for disruptive technology.

Technology

She told the conference: 'Those with the latest smartphone, those who speak English and live in cities, those who have high speed broadband, are being offered something that others are not.

'I believe that with the right use of technology in the future NHS we can actually aim to reduce health inequalities and counteract some of the adverse social determinants of health. But GPs on the frontline just can’t afford the investment in technology, most of us aren’t being propped up by wealthy venture capitalists, after all.

'We need technology that works for patients, makes our lives easier and is not lining the pockets of private investors at the expense of the NHS.'

Babylon medical director Dr Mobasher Butt, a GP partner with GP at Hand, hit back strongly at criticism of the service. Responding to the comments expected in Professor Stokes-Lampard's speech, he said the real 'digital divide' was between 'organisations like Babylon, who are willing to challenge existing medical hierarchies in the interests of doing what’s best for patients, and those with vested interests'.

Patients' interests

He said: 'Helen and I both chose a career in medicine to serve patients’ interests first. I believe it is time that we focused not on what we want as GPs, but on what our patients are crying out for.

'The idea of any company being able to "siphon off" younger, fitter patients when delivering primary care under a GMS contract shows a misunderstanding as this is simply not possible. Both Babylon and GP at Hand are committed to serving everyone who chooses our services.'

Polling by the college earlier this year revealed that one in four GPs who believe their practices are unsustainable in the long term cite the costs of new technology as a factor.

Professor Stokes-Lampard told the conference: 'I call upon our political leaders to give us the tools we need. Give us the chance to tame the "tech tsunami" in a way that doesn’t put existing services at risk, in a way that benefits all our patients, and makes our working lives easier.

'Give us the extra investment we all need and bring our share of the NHS budget back to 11% right across the UK.'

Read more from the RCGP annual conference

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