Babylon allowed to act ‘unlicensed and bullish’ in expansion, MP says


Babylon has been able to act “unlicensed” in their “bullish” expansion across the country, an MP has said.

Speaking in response to GP at Hand’s proposed expansion to Manchester, Andy Slaughter said the NHS appears to be facilitating the digital provider “without looking at the consequences for primary care”.

The MP for Hammersmith reiterated his previous calls for an inquiry into Babylon’s services before any further expansion takes place.

“The NHS is facilitating Babylon without looking at the consequences for primary care, which I think is a huge dereliction of their responsibility,” he told Digital Health News.

“Effectively Babylon can act unlicensed in the way they expand and they’re very bullish and open about the fact that they wish to monopolise digital services in primary care.

“We absolutely need a full investigation as to how are we going to go forward with digitisation in the NHS, certainly in primary care.”

Babylon announced last week that it was in “formal talks” to expand to Manchester some six months after it was given the green light to expand to Birmingham.

The service is expected to be operating in the northern city in early 2020. A new physical premises will be set up in central Manchester should the expansion go ahead, but a location is yet to be confirmed.

Slaughter said NHS England’s recent consultation and subsequent decisions on digital-first primary care – including the requirement of digital providers to set up new alternative provider medical services (APMS) once they reach 1,000 out-of-area patients – was a “welcome development” but doesn’t adequately address the way Babylon is “distorting” primary care.

“It will probably mean GP at Hand will have to change their operating model a little bit,” he said.

“But it doesn’t address what I think is a fundamental objection to GP at Hand which is that it is distorting the way primary care is going to operate by sucking out the most profitable parts of it into a parallel digital system.”

He said he hoped further expansion of GP at Hand wouldn’t worsen Hammersmith and Fulham CCGs financial situation, claiming the CCG has accumulated a deficit of at least £35 million due to facilitating the provider.

Slaughter isn’t alone in his concerns about GP at Hand’s expansion.

Dr Richard Vautrey, GP committee chair at the British Medical Association, said a lack of investment in digital services from NHS England has allowed Babylon to “take advantage” of the health system.

“GPs have always been at the forefront of new technology – and practices want to be able to use more of it – but we rely on CCGs and NHS England to provide the funding to make that happen,” he said.

“Without this investment, private companies like Babylon have been able to take advantage of our depleted healthcare system, threatening traditional place-based care.”

Echoing the findings of the Ipsos Mori report into GP at Hand, which found the provider “clearly limits” the type of patients that can use the service, Mr Vautrey added: “Prioritising healthier patients with short-term care needs over those who are more vulnerable is not what the NHS is about, nor should it ever be something we support.

“That’s why we need to see urgent upgrades made to IT systems and other technologies used in primary care to remove the need for alternatives and ensure that every patient, regardless of their background, can access the high-quality care they need and deserve.”

Digital Health News previously reported that GP at Hand’s expansion to Birmingham had been delayed due to Hammersmith and Fulham CCG missing a deadline to upgrade its referral software.

A spokesperson for Babylon said: “The NHS wants every patient to be able to have digital-first GPs so it recently updated its funding system so that the money goes to the CCG where the patient is based, not where the main GP practice is located.

“Even though Hammersmith & Fulham CCG and NHS England always said the funding delay would be resolved, this new policy will ensure it does not happen again.”

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