It’s Monday morning, and you need to see a GP. Time to get on the phone. Half an hour of waiting, and you may just have an appointment, or you may have been told to phone back the next day, because all the appointments are booked.
Getting a GP appointment can be a difficult and frustrating business. No wonder that A&E departments are reporting high numbers of ‘inappropriate attendances’, people who should have gone to their GP instead. But now, tech start-up babylon is aiming to change the way that we access GP services, and in doing so, it may just revolutionise healthcare delivery.
Everyone’s personal health service
babylon bills itself as ‘everyone’s personal health service’. Founded by Ali Parsa, former CEO of Circle Healthcare, it aims to become a complete digital healthcare service.
The idea behind it is simple: most of us now have access to a smartphone, and would be willing to use that to access healthcare. The babylon app is a subscription service that gives rapid access to a remote video consultation with a GP, and then, if necessary, a prescription sent to a local pharmacy. You can also use the app to ask doctors a question about your health for free, monitor your health and order various tests and kits. In other words, it provides fast and convenient access to healthcare, for a relatively small fee.
Doctors are all registered with the General Medical Council, and therefore licensed to practise in the UK. Most are working in the NHS as GPs, although there are a few private GPs on the list. The GPs on babylon have the option to refer people on to babylon specialists, all of whom are, again, registered with the GMC. The numbers and range of specialists still look a bit limited, although this seems bound to expand in future.
Subscribers pay £4.99 a month in the UK, and €7.99 in Eire, although there is also a pay-per-use option that charges £29 or €29 per GP consultation. Specialist consultations cost subscribers £49 and non-subscribers £79.
One really interesting aspect is the way that babylon is being used. Yes, individuals can use it, and are doing so. babylon suggests, for example, that it is ideal for students, because their parents can just pay the subscription and make sure they have the app on their phones. But the real growth area is likely to be partnerships with insurers and corporations.
Health insurance providers are offering babylon subscriptions as a benefit to their customers, providing rapid access to healthcare at a relatively low price. Companies are also offering it as a perk to employees, either as well as or instead of health insurance. After all, quick access to a GP consultation means less time off work.
Two NHS GP practices in Southend have also partnered with babylon to reduce waiting times at their surgeries. A recent report suggested that waiting times at one surgery had been cut from three weeks to two, thanks to patients using the app. It is, effectively, an extension of the telephone triage system already used by many surgeries. Patients registered with the practice use a code to give them access to doctors from the practice, rather than any others on babylon. It enables a video consultation with their GP, usually within an hour. Prescriptions can be sent to pharmacies in London, where many of the patients work.
Revolutionising the provision of healthcare to the developing world
Although babylon is currently only operating in the UK and Eire, the company has big plans. CEO Ali Parsa points out that the idea has potential to revolutionise healthcare in developing countries, where access to medical care is a big issue, often because of shortages of doctors. Smartphone use, however, is spreading rapidly in these areas.
The ‘doctor in your pocket’ could soon become a reality, giving rapid access to high quality and relatively affordable healthcare to people around the world, regardless of location. This kind of remote access may well be the future of healthcare provision, given the cost of training healthcare practitioners, and the chronic global shortages of key personnel. It is a very efficient model of provision.
babylon is shortly to start providing services across the whole of one East African country. Its experience will be interesting to watch, and particularly to see whether it is able to ‘reach the parts others cannot reach’. There is a lot riding on this, for global healthcare as well as for babylon itself.