• Secretary of State says helping GP at Hand will help its competitors too
  • Says rules need to change to support new digital services
  • Comments made at Babylon Healthcare’s office, attended by senior NHS England officials

Matt Hancock has told an audience of Babylon Healthcare staff he wants to help the company expand “so loads of companies can come do what Babylon are doing” in the NHS.

Speaking at the company’s London offices on Thursday night, the health and social care secretary said he wanted to change NHS rules to improve access to Babylon’s NHS digital primary care service, GP at Hand.

“It [GP at Hand] helps to deliver a better service. I think that it helps patients and it can help clinicians,” Mr Hancock said.

The event was also attended by several senior NHS England decision makers including chair Sir Malcolm Grant, chief clinical information officer Dr Simon Eccles, and chief digital officer Juliet Bauer.

NHS England has played an increasingly big role in regulating GP at Hand, including blocking an expansion into Birmingham.

Mr Hancock paid tribute to NHS England specifically for “making the system work so that this service [GP at Hand] has been able to expand the point it has thus far.” 

He said the rules needed to change ”so some new services can be accommodated, and existing services are protected. We are in the process of that iteration right now.”

Improvements that were needed with GP at Hand included better information sharing with other NHS services, he said

His comments came immediately after Babylon founder, Ali Parsa, announced the company would spend £100m on creating a digital service for managing chronic conditions.

Mr Hancock is a registered GP at Hand user and has praised the service previously.

On Thursday morning, Mr Hancock was quoted in The Telegraph stating that he wanted GP at Hand “available to all, not based on their postcode”.

On Thursday night he said wanted to support an “ecosystem of digital companies”, including Babylon’s current and future digital competitors.

Speaking to HSJ after his speech he said: “I want the system to work so all sorts of services that can use modern technology can improve access for patients, whether that’s GP at Hand or its current or future competitors.”

Asked about concerns about GP at Hand, expressed by some clinicians, Mr Hancock said: “Where there is a problem, we’ve got to improve the technology to overcome the problem rather than reject technology that clearly has the opportunity to improve care.”

Babylon also needed to work “closely” with regulators, such as the Care Quality Commission, to “ensure the system as a whole can respond to technology”, he said.

The company threatened the regulator with legal action last year.

What is GP at Hand?

GP at Hand is a service offered by a partnership between a Fulham-based practice – formerly called Dr S Jefferies and Partners – and digital health provider Babylon Health.

As well as traditional physical GP appointments, GP at Hand offers free video appointments to NHS patients, and other digital services such as a symptom checker, through a mobile app.

The practice subcontracts Babylon to provide the digital element of this service but the company is also represented within GP at Hand, with Babylon medical director Mobasher Butt a partner.

It holds a general medical service contract and makes use of the national GP choice policy in combination with its video appointments to attract and register many patients from outside the immediate catchment of its physical surgeries.

While GP at Hand has been operating out of one site since late 2016, it attracted national media coverage in November 2017 when it expanded to five sites across London.

GP at Hand’s practice list grew more than six-fold to more than 26,000 in less than six months.

The new patients are disproportionately younger than the national average and most live in other parts of London.

GP at Hand’s rapid growth has prompted concerns among GPs, regulators and commissioners that the service could destabilise the primary care system by undermining the financial viability of GP practices that are losing patients and CCGs struggling with the sudden shift in costs.

Hammersmith and Fulham CCG and NHS England have commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct an independent evaluation of the GP at Hand model.