Two NHS hospitals in the Midlands are the first to sign up for Babylon’s COVID-19 Care Assistant app in an effort to give coronavirus patients 24/7 access to support and monitoring services, despite the pressure the pandemic is placing on staff levels.
Between them, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS trust and University Hospitals Birmingham NHS trust serve nearly 4.2 million people – 7.5% of England’s population. They will all potentially have free access to the app, which will allow them to check symptoms, track their illness, speak to trained team members, and consult with GPs and clinicians by video.
The service will give patients a way of monitoring their symptoms, helping to detect red flags or a deteriorating condition, while clinicians can focus on patients who are most at need.
At a time when the Royal College of Physicians is reporting that 20% of physicians are off-work due to illness or self-isolating, the app will play a key role in the trusts’ capacity to manage absence on this scale. Self-isolating clinicians will also be able to help staff the service.
Dr Umang Patel, NHS services director at Babylon, said much of the focus during the app’s development was on ensuring that it would engage people and inspire the same trust they already have in their physical experience of healthcare provision. That trust also has to be shared by clinicians, many of whom are still on a learning curve when it comes to digital consultations.
At Wolverhampton, the process of taking a traditional clinical world and melding it with a virtual app capable of delivering one-to-many care, without compromising patient confidence or data security, required intense collaboration under the pressure of a tight timescale.
COVID-19: 'UNFORTUNATELY HELPFUL'
“We put a lot of work into the process steps to make sure, for example, that if a patient stops using the app it won’t affect their ongoing general care – and that when we hand the app over to the hospital, all the failsafe boxes are ticked,” said Dr Patel.
“The other challenge about the COVID-19 pandemic is that you have to work really fast, while being realistic about what you can deliver by when. There is a lot of learning in the shift to dealing with care in a one-to-many model – and COVID-19 has, however unfortunately, been very helpful with that.”
A Babylon spokesperson confirmed that the company was in conversations with many groups from multiple countries about the Care Assistant, but no further agreements have been signed at this time.
With the demand for digital tools to help tackle the pandemic making great demands on the agility of tech innovators, apps such as the COVID-19 Care Assistant and the arrival of contact tracing apps are evidence of the speed with which they are reacting to the challenge.
But there are also concerns that many of these enterprises are not supported by the lending schemes announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to help British businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.
On 8 April, Babylon CEO and co-founder Ali Parsa was among 12 figures from the tech sector to co-sign a letter to the chancellor urgently requesting the formation of a taskforce to help find a way for high tech businesses to access current or new lending schemes.
TECH SOLD SHORT
In a separate statement, Parsa said that Babylon is not asking for government support for itself but in general for those technology companies that have managed to scale up and become world leaders in their fields.
“These companies are trying to bring innovations in critical industries, sometimes against much larger incumbents that have failed to invest in innovation,” he said.
“It can’t be right that the successful British companies that are investing significantly in scaling up their technology and operations to become British champions of innovation globally, are denied a level playing field with incumbents.
“Every scheme so far announced by the Chancellor, such as the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), is designed to help the incumbents. We signed this letter because the UK’s future success relies heavily on a strong technology sector and innovation, and yet the schemes so far discriminate against its champions.”