Technology

Virtual GP service gets green light to expand out of London

NHS England has confirmed it has lifted its objections to the GP at Hand service expanding into Birmingham.

A virtual GP service has been given the green light to expand to a second major city after health leaders dropped their objections.

NHS England confirmed it had found a solution to previous concerns around access to immunisation and screening programmes for GP at Hand patients and lifted its objections to it expansion.

The decision paves the wave for the service, created by healthcare technology firm Babylon Health, to launch in Birmingham.

But senior medics branded the decision “disappointing and premature” and said it was “inappropriate” to allow GP at Hand’s expansion before an independent evaluation of it is published.

GP at Hand offers a GP consultation via a smartphone 24 hours a day to patients who live or work in various locations in London, with the promise of a video consultation within two hours of booking.

If a patient needs a face-to-face appointment, they must travel to clinics in commuter hubs.

It is hosted by Hammersmith and Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Babylon Health said more than 40,000 people were registered to use GP at Hand.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has previously described GP at Hand as “revolutionary” and said: “I want to see GP At Hand available to all, not based on their postcode.”

But the service has proved controversial since it was launched in the capital last year, and has been accused of “cherry-picking” healthy patients.

Birmingham and Solihull CCG has previously objected to the expansion of GP at Hand into the city, raising concerns about fragmentation of care and patient safety.

Plans to expand the scheme to Birmingham were initially blocked by NHS England due to concerns about patient access to screening, but NHS England has now confirmed a solution had been found.

NHS England said it will work with GP at Hand, Hammersmith and Fulham and Birmingham and Solihull CCGs and national screening services to launch the new service and agree a start date.

A spokeswoman added: “As set out in the Long Term Plan, the NHS will see an increasing use of digital technology and from 2021 every patient in England will have access to online and video consultation – if they choose it – and this practice is just one of the ways of providing that.”

But the British Medical Association said it was “wholly inappropriate” to allow the expansion before an independent evaluation of GP at Hand had published its findings.

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair said: “We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which is not only premature, but flies in the face of place-based care delivered by practices embedded in local communities, which the recent changes in the GP contract are committed to deliver.

“The independent evaluation into GP at Hand is yet to publish its findings, so it is wholly inappropriate to allow this service’s expansion with no assurances over its safety and effectiveness.”

But a Babylon GP at Hand spokesman said the service “meets and exceeds” all standards in the NHS GP contract.

He added: “People have a right to choose the NHS practice that best fits with their lifestyles and the needs of their families.

“Vested interests will always try to stop innovation, but what matters is the needs and desires of patients.

“The NHS England decision to allow Babylon GP at hand to expand to Birmingham underlines and supports this.”

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