• UH Birmingham FT in talks with digital health company Babylon Healthcare
  • Comes as company’s controversial NHS primary care service, GP at Hand, prepares to expand into city
  • Hospital trust wants to use Babylon tech for video outpatients and digital triage chatbot for ED

One of the country’s biggest hospital trusts has entered talks with digital health company Babylon Healthcare after concluding local GPs were unable to support its “painful” transformation efforts, HSJ can reveal.

On Wednesday, University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust’s board agreed to explore using Babylon’s services, including video appointments and digital triage, to help divert pressure from its severely strained hospitals.

If the deal goes ahead, it would be Babylon’s first partnership with an NHS hospital. It has previously focussed on digital GP services. Babylon’s NHS services director Paul Bate told HSJ he hoped the work with UH Birmingham would provide a model for work with other trusts.

The talks follow Babylon’s controversial GP service for the NHS, GP at Hand, being approved to expand into Birmingham, despite objections from local GPs and the Birmingham and Solihull Clinical Commissioning Group.

Speaking to HSJ on Thursday, UHB chief executive Dave Rosser said the two events were unrelated, with the trust settling on Babylon as its preferred tech partner after talking with many other suppliers. 

“We wouldn’t be putting pressure on people to change their GP – that’s not our business,” he said. “There is a potential narrative there that GP at Hand would be able to offer an enhanced referral service rather than other GPs, but that’s purely down to the technology.” 

Dr Rosser acknowledged that “some people in the system won’t be happy” about the partnership with Babylon but said “disruptive and painful” transformation was needed to stem the unprecedented pressure on hospital services.

“No local GPs are offering us this level of support in transforming the system”, he said. “We do expect some disquiet about it [from GPs], but we will just have to work through that.”

Dr Rosser said the partnership has the support of NHS England/Improvement.

UH Birmingham FT provides the majority of acute services in Birmingham and Solihull but has increasingly struggled with capacity as urgent demand has risen in the past three years.  

A paper submitted to the UHB board this week, and seen by HSJ, showed the partnership with Babylon could include “virtual outpatient consultation”, chronic disease management, and use of pre-hospital triage using Babylon’s symptom checker app.

It stated: “We would like to explore whether an AI symptom checking tool, such as Babylon’s AI symptom checker, currently designed for and aimed at primary care, could be developed for use in relation to urgent and emergency care.”

Dr Rosser said Babylon’s symptom checker app could be used to triage patients both before and after they arrived at the emergency department, with a second triage tier of video/telephone service manned by nurses in ED. He said he would eventually like the symptom checker to refer patients directly to specialist hot clinics, bypassing ED completely.

“The big one for us is reducing the footfall in ED,” he said. 

Dr Rosser also claimed a large proportion of the trust’s annual 2 million outpatient appointments could be safely switched to video appointments.

The paper stated: “We would seek to explore the use of [Babylon’s] video software for outpatients and whether it could link seamlessly with PICS [software] to support an integrated patient record.” 

Last year, Babylon announced it would be investing £100m in developing digital tools for managing chronic conditions. The UHB paper stated that clinicians could be involved in developing these tools further, with diabetes and hypertension likely early candidates. 

The paper that went to the board said current GP service and emergency out-of-hours services were struggling to meet patient demand and the trust needed to seek alternatives to relieving pressure, such as GP at Hand and other digital technologies. Already nine out of 10 of UHB’s acute beds were taken up by non-elective patients and, without a radical change, the paper predicted the elective waiting list would grow by 40 per cent within five years.

No deal had been signed between UHB and Babylon, but Dr Rosser said he hoped to have the symptom checker app available to patients before the coming winter.