App based GP practice launches in London

GP at Hand emphasises potential of video consultations and wins support of NHS officials, while raising concerns from Royal College of GPs

An NHS GP practice relying on the use of a smartphone app has gone live in London today, with the organisers claiming it has 3,000 patients already signed up after a small scale trial.

Smartphone in useNamed GP at Hand, it gives patients a route to a video consultation through the app developed by babylon health, with the option of face-to-face meetings if necessary.

But the launch has prompted a warning from the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) that it could involve the cherry picking of patients and create a “twin track” general practice.

The new practice requires patients to sign up with it and transfer their records from their existing GP. This involves an identity verification process including the provision of a photo of the patient.

It then offers the prospect of arranging video consultations through the app, claiming they can typically be held within two hours of booking, in contrast to average waits of up to two weeks for ordinary GP practices.

24/7/365

The doctors are based in the UK and service is available on a 24/7 basis every day of the year. If needed, it is possible to set up a face-to-face consultation at one of a number of surgeries around the city centre.

GP at Hand said the service meets or exceeds all NHS data security standards, with all patient data held centrally so that if the phone with the app is lost it will not create an extra risk.

The launch has the support of some senior public healthcare officials. Dr Charles Alessi, senior advisor at the Public Health England, said: "The GP at Hand service is a true NHS primary care service - helping people stay healthy as well as looking after them when they are sick. People want to be in control of their health, and through babylon's technology GP at Hand makes that possible. "

Jane Barnacle, director of patients and information for NHS England London region, commented: “GP practices are right to carefully test innovative new technologies that can improve free NHS services for their patients while also freeing up staff time. The NHS is now developing modern new treatment options for our patients, recognising that one size does not fit all when it comes to primary care."

College's caution

But the RCGP has been more cautious in its response. The organisation’s chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, acknowledged that it could provide a solution for younger, healthier commuters who face long waiting times for a regular doctor’s appointment.

She added, however: “We are really worried that schemes like this are creating a twin-track approach to NHS general practice and that patients are being cherry picked, which could actually increase the pressures on traditional GPs based in the community.

“We understand that with increasingly long waiting times to see a GP, an online service is convenient and appealing, but older patients and those living with more complex needs want continuity of care and the security of their local practice where their GPs know them.

“We notice there is an extensive list of patient conditions such as frailty, pregnancy and mental health conditions that are the essence of general practice and which GPs deal with every day, but which are not eligible for this service.”

Stokes-Lampard said there is also likely to be a lot of bureaucracy if patients want to transfer back to their local surgeries, and that the new practice could lure GPs away from others that are struggling to cope with patient demand.

GP at Hand said there are plans to make the service available beyond London in the near future.

Image from Victorgrigas, Creative Commons 3.0 through Wikimedia