Uncertain future for 100,000 patients as NHS virtual GP provider warns of looming bankruptcy

Babylon Health – which provides the NHS GP at Hand virtual surgery – has announced a proposed merger has fallen through and that, unless a buyer is found imminently, it will enter administration

More than 100,000 patients face an uncertain future as the company that provides the NHS’s core virtual GP service has warned that it may soon declare bankruptcy.

GP at Hand – which offers consultations primarily via a smartphone app, with appointments available around the clock – began operating as an NHS GP in 2017. Since then, more than 100,000 citizens have switched their registration to the digital health firm. Although virtual consultations are the core means of delivery, registrations are only open to patients in London – where GP at Hand operates five in-person clinics.

The service is provided by digital health specialist Babylon which, earlier this summer, announced plans to merge with digital neuroscience firm MindMaze – a move with it said would help secure its financial future.

But, in an update last week, the company revealed this deal has fallen through, leaving the company with “no binding commitment for additional financing to continue its business operations” much beyond the coming weeks.

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The firm is “exploring new strategic alternatives” for its future, and is seeking a buyer for its UK operations. If it is not able to do so, the company is heading for imminent collapse.

The firm said: “To the extent that Babylon is unable to secure additional financing and complete a third-party sale of a particular business, the applicable entities of the group will file for bankruptcy protection or implement other alternatives for an orderly wind down and liquidation or dissolution, which may include… a UK administration for the applicable entities of the group in the near term.”

In the meantime, Babylon added that it “remains focused on continuing the day to day operations of its UK business, providing accessibility of its healthcare services and the highest standards of care for its patients”.

“Babylon has built a successful, distinct and sustainable UK business which provides high quality healthcare to many,” it said. “However, it cannot provide assurance that any of these initiatives will result in Babylon entering into a definitive agreement for or completing a divestiture.”

High-profile advocates for GP at Hand included Matt Hancock who, upon his appointment as health secretary, revealed that he had switched his GP registration to the virtual service.

But the company has also had its share of controversy and criticism from healthcare professionals, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, whose then chair Helen Stokes-Lampard claimed the launch of the smartphone GP service would increase pressure on doctors and create “a twin-track approach to general practice”.

Major concerns were also raised over the potential gender bias of its services, when it emerged that, presented with two otherwise completely idential patients and symptoms, its triage chatbot diagnosed the male patient as suffering a potential heart attack – and the female as suffering from depression or a panic attack.

PublicTechnology contaced NHS England to ask for comment and details of contingency plans for the 100,000-plus patients that would be impacted by GP at Hand’s potential demise. We had not heard back at time of going to press

Sam Trendall

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