‘Babylon’ gets a hold in the NHS-UK

In the ancient city of Babylon, almost 2500 years ago, citizens needing medical advice often gathered in the town square to share thoughts on treatments for common illnesses. This is one of the earliest examples of democratising healthcare – and, as it was the Babylonians who enjoyed the longest life expectancy across the ancient world, it’s from our health-conscious ancestors that we take inspiration for our 21st century services.(ref).

Babylon is a medical startup’s artificial intelligence “Symptom Checker” (Ref). The symptom checker will help you understand your symptoms and provide you with medical information, causes, and treatment for the most common symptoms. ‘A review of Digital and Online Symptom Checkers and Assessment Services for Urgent Care’ (Ref) reported major uncertainties surround the probable impact of digital 111 services on most outcomes. It further stated that it will be important to monitor and evaluate the services using all available data sources and by commissioning high-quality research.

A controversial London-based healthcare startup shouldn’t be allowed to expand its digital GP business across the UK until its impact on the NHS is fully understood, a Labour MP has said. Andy Slaughter, the MP for Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, has called for an urgent inquiry into the services run by Babylon Health.

The company, which opened its first GP surgery in Slaughter’s constituency in November 2017, operates GP at Hand. The service is an NHS clinic that allows registered patients to video chat with doctors through an app. To join GP at Hand, people need to leave their existing NHS GP. Since it opened, the digital-first practice has amassed more than 40,000 registered patients and has become one of England’s biggest GP surgeries.

A second issue raised by Slaughter in the letter was the “very public support” given to Babylon by secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock, who is not only registered with Babylon’s GP surgery, which he calls “revolutionary”, but has also appeared in an advertorial for the company in The Evening Standard. That public support may be hampering the ability of NHS and civil servants to “fully articulate their concerns about GP at Hand and scrutinise its operation,” Slaughter writes in his letter.

“This is a scandal,” he says of Hancock’s support. Slaughter says he believes that Hancock’s support made the select committee the right avenue for an inquiry. “You’re clearly going to get nothing out of the Department of Health (DoH) because Hancock is a cheerleader for this,” he said. He added that while the DoH had so far been ineffective, he hoped the select committee could look at both the technical and political side of this in a “cross-party way”

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