CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Phone app that could destroy our GP system

A private company being promoted by government to recruit patients to its doctor service spells ruin for the whole-person integrated care we need from the NHS, argue Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion

07 December, 2018

The sneaking privatisation of our National Health Service now aggressively threatens our GPs. In Camden and across London, we all need to be aware of the long-term harms this development will cause GPs and primary care NHS services.

Last year, a global multinational corporation called Babylon Healthcare – owned by a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and Circle Health CEO – established a “digital- first” business called “GP at Hand”.

Disastrously for the NHS, Babylon Healthcare Services Ltd can be traced back to a holding company in Jersey, the offshore tax haven.

GP at Hand is contactable through a mobile app which uses standard calculations as a symptom checker. Unfortunately NHS England have not provided our existing practices with this software.

Instead any patient registering with this commercial enterprise will be deregistered from their normal GPs. And, although the GPs employed by the company can also be accessed by video or phone, this process delivers no continuity of care or whole-patient assessment.

Continuity of care is a cornerstone of general practices. However, Matt Hancock, the health secretary says, “If we need to change the rules to work with the new technology then change the rules we must.”

In addition GP at Hand’s own promotion material actively discourages older people from registering. Explicitly these are those who are frail or living with dementia, or in need of end-of-life care. Pregnant women and those it describes as having complex social physical and psychological needs are also discouraged from signing up.

In other words it is “cherry-picking” young and healthy patients who will be more profitable to its shareholders. Its use of standard practice via information technology, and the easy access it offers, is particularly attractive to the young.

Of the 31,519 new patients who have signed up with GP at Hand over the past 12 months, 87 per cent are aged between 20 and 39 years, while patients over 65 now make up just 1 per cent of the population registered with the service.

All this poses serious problems both for patients and general practices.

In the first place, our present primary care system consists of GP practices committed to whole-person and integrated care for everyone in their local communities. Healthcare services are organised around geographic areas to enable better co-ordination with hospitals and social services.

In contrast to this, GP at Hand fractures this fair and impartial community-based model, registering patients who live or work anywhere within 35 to 40 minutes of one of the clinics.

In addition, should any of their patients require more complex care, they will no longer have their own GP to turn to.

Secondly, by picking the most profitable patients, GP at Hand drains money away from ordinary GP surgeries. Normal GPs are funded according to the number of people on their patient list and this funding is combined into a single budget to provide the services they offer. This means that funding from the roughly 80 per cent of patients who remain reasonably well helps to pay for the 20 per cent who are elderly, who are chronically sick, or have multiple illnesses.

But if the “capitation fee” of the young and healthy is scooped up by a for-profit company like GP at Hand, it will critically undermine the funding available to surgeries.

This will leave practices to deal with the sick, the frail and the old on a much reduced budget.
Shockingly this commercial entity is funded by NHS England. It can be commissioned through our clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

It’s expanding fast, and already has over 35,000 patients. Currently the corporation operates out of five clinical locations in London including one in King’s Cross.

Plans for rolling it out nationwide are under discussion. It is also advertised widely, with the health secretary Matt Hancock recently announcing that he has registered with the company.

Future developments in information technology and artificial intelligence that can be useful to our public health systems should be funded directly towards our existing GP surgeries.

It should not be used as a vehicle for profit-making by private corporations at the expense of our NHS.
We need to make the dangers of adopting this business model clear to the widest possible public. We must encourage those who care about our publicly-funded NHS to boycott Babylon’s GP at Hand.

We need to bring public pressure to bear and end this attack on a valued and trusted institution that serves us all.

The NHS has always been for the benefit of everybody. It must be kept that way.

• Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion are members of the Holborn & St Pancras Labour Party and of the Socialist Health Association.

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