Dozens of doctors, health workers and NHS campaigners took to the streets of East London to protest against the latest threat to general practice.
GP at Hand, run by technology firm Babylon Health which has links to various high-profile Tories, is an app-based GP service which targets younger, healthier and more affluent patients.
Protestors highlighted on Thursday (November 21) the fact that the service is in effect de-funding traditional GP surgeries, because they rely on the 80 per cent of people who are healthy – the same cohort GP at Hand is now poaching – to subsidise the 20 per cent who are older or have more complex health needs.
The latest controversy surrounding GP at Hand is that, after a summer consultation which received little input, NHS England is quietly poised to changed the rules so that it’s much easier for the app-based service to operate and spread.
“NHS England are now proposing that in any CCG area where GP at Hand has more than 1,000 patients, the service will automatically be handed an APMS [Alternative Provider Medical Services] contract – something that traditionally people have to compete for,” Doctors in Unite (DiU) chair and GP Jackie Applebee told UniteLive at Thursday’s demo. “Under these changes, GP at Hand will simply be given a contract. It’s very unfair.”
Applebee (pictured above) also pointed to the fact that GP at Hand is not evidence-based – serious problems have been discovered, for example, with the service’s Artificial Intelligence ‘chat bots’, which often misdiagnose patients’ ailments.
‘By the offices of Babylon’
But fuelled by patients’ lack of awareness over its services, GP at Hand’s total patient list has soared to nearly 70,000, with 4,017 new patients signing up in the month to November. The numbers are only expected to increase as GP at Hand has now begun operating in Birmingham, with talks to open up in Manchester in 2020 as well.
Tower Hamlets, where Thursday’s protest was held, has the largest GP at Hand patient list in the country, with about 6,000 patients. The situation in the London borough is emblematic of the threat that GP at Hand poses and exploits — extreme poverty in certain pockets of Tower Hamlets gives way to areas of extreme wealth, such as in the gleaming financial centre of Canary Wharf.
Protestors descended on this very centre where GP at Hand is set to open up new premises (pictured above). Standing in front of hoarding emblazoned with GP at Hand branding at a shopping centre in Canary Wharf, the demonstrators sang songs including ‘By the Offices of Babylon’, set to the tune of the popular reggae song.
Unite member Frances Cornford (pictured below), a historian who campaigns for the NHS in her local area, explained to UniteLive why she was taking a stand against GP at Hand.
“Babylon Health is essentially cherry-picking younger, fitter patients through GP at Hand,” she said. “They join, thinking they’re getting a full GP service and then they realise that they’re only going to see a GP remotely, through the Internet, and then they leave again. Research has shown that 25 per cent of GP at Hand patients leave within two years. And this whole process comes at an enormous cost to the NHS. GP at Hand has, for example, added massively to Hammersmith and Fulham CCG’s growing deficit.
Unite member Eugene (pictured below), who is a retired NHS pathologist, and now spends much of his time campaigning for the NHS, agrees.
“We know that we need to use more technology in the health service but GP at Hand is not the way to do it,” he said. “They’re poaching patients from other GP surgeries and the money follows the patients. It’s unfair, but the Conservative powers that be want to encourage this sort of thing. People shouldn’t be fooled – even though GP at Hand is technically within the NHS, it is totally contrary to the values and the spirit of the NHS. It will lead to two-tier care, where people who are less ill get one service and those who are very ill are left on the scrap heap.”
Unite member Dr Kambiz Boomla, a semi-retired GP (pictured below), said that even those who may be tempted by GP at Hand’s promise of quick access to a doctor should think again.
“I would argue that you need someone who gets to know you who can provide you with continuity of care, who knows you when you’re well so they can better treat you when you’re ill. There’s no continuity of care with GP at Hand and my message to the NHS executive is this – GP at Hand is a model that has no place in our health service.”
Fight for the NHS – and vote
Unite member Phil Edwards (pictured below), a retired teacher and joint secretary of the Newham Save our NHS campaign, told UniteLive he became involved in NHS campaigning after his wife became seriously ill.
“She went to all the various hospitals that Bart’s Trust run in East London – each one of them – and she received on the whole excellent treatment. Since then I’ve become more and more involved in the campaign.”
Phil explained that he’s standing up against GP at Hand now especially during the general election.
“We’ve seen the mess GP at Hand has created in Tower Hamlets, and I feel now it’s especially important to highlight these issues on the eve of the general election,” he said. “I’m hoping for a Labour government because there’s no one else who’s going to resolve this crisis we are now facing in the NHS.”
Applebee agreed and urged patients considering registering at GP at Hand to think twice.
“Don’t blame the health service, blame the government,” she said. “Successive Tory-led governments have only increased funding for the NHS by one per cent each year since 2010 – before then, increases averaged about 4 per cent annually. The whole NHS has been squeezed.
“So I would say to people, if you’re thinking of registering with GP at Hand because you can’t get an appointment with your GP, I understand your frustrations but this is not the way to go. I urge people to instead fight for the NHS and vote for a government that will do the same.”
- Photos by Mark Thomas