‘Tech tsunami’ putting NHS services at risk, GP leaders warn

Fears of growing 'digital divide' if government backs private tech firms at the expense of investing in NHS services

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Thursday 04 October 2018 00:00 BST
‘Those who have high speed broadband, are being offered something that others are not,’ chair of Royal College of GPs says
‘Those who have high speed broadband, are being offered something that others are not,’ chair of Royal College of GPs says (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A “tech tsunami” being championed by the likes of health secretary Matt Hancock is destabilising the NHS in a way that increases health inequalities and profits private firms, GP leaders have said.

Warning about the growing “digital divide” the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, has called government to invest in NHS technology to ensure all patients can benefit.

Opening the RCGP annual conference in Glasgow on Thursday, she is expected to warn about privately run tech schemes “siphoning off” younger, healthier patients.

“Those with the latest smart phone, those who speak English and live in cities, those who have high speed broadband, are being offered something that others are not,” she will say.

“I believe that with the right use of technology in the future NHS we can actually aim to reduce health inequalities and counteract some of the adverse social determinants of health.

Mr Hancock has praised the video appointment app, GP at hand, run by tech-firm Babylon Health in partnership with an NHS practice in London, and is a patient himself. The service currently lets any patient in the London area register, and offers video appointments with an NHS GP in a matter of minutes over an app.

It has been criticised by GP groups since its launch for “cherry picking” patients, as its website sets out that its services might not be suitable for those with certain complex conditions, though the company is developing a complex care team to address this.

The NHS pays GP practices a flat rate per patient so younger patients in an area subsidise the increased care needs of those who are older and sicker.

But this system breaks down if younger people can register with a service miles away from their home offering a video GP appointment, the college warns.

“We need technology that works for patients, makes our lives easier and is not lining the pockets of private investors at the expense of the NHS,” Professor Stokes-Lampard will say.

“Give us the chance to tame the ‘tech tsunami’ in a way that doesn’t put existing services at risk, in a way that benefits all our patients, and makes our working lives easier,” she will say.

The RCGP also said the suggestion doctors were “technophobic dinosaurs” was nonsense after Babylon rebuked criticism by saying GPs were being resistant to innovation that will improve patient care and relieve workloads.

The health secretary also told the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday the NHS cannot wait to make sure technology “works perfectly for everybody” if it is safe.

Babylon’s chief medical officer, Dr Mobasher Butt, said: “The RCGP talks about a ‘digital divide’, but the truth is the ‘digital divide’ is between organisations like Babylon, who are willing to challenge existing medical hierarchies in the interests of doing what’s best for patients, and those with vested interests who wish to keep primary care as the sole preserve of their organisations.

“Saying GP practices can’t afford to [change] is simply not true,” he added.

“GP at hand has shown that it is possible for any NHS GP practice to take advantage of some of the world’s best technology, without costing the NHS a penny more, and this is precisely why other NHS practices are queuing up to do the same.”

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