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NHS Services: Online Access

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2018

1. What recent progress has been made on providing patients with online access to NHS services. (906605)

It is a great honour to be here, Mr Speaker.

There is good progress in patients using online services in the NHS—about a quarter of patients are now registered to access general practitioner online services, up from about a fifth a year ago—but there is much more to be done to use technology in the NHS for the benefit of patients and clinicians alike.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. Healthcare delivered by app is increasingly popular with patients in Havant and across the country. Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm his Department’s commitment to the first ever NHS patient app, and update the House on the timetable for its roll-out?

The roll-out of technology right across the NHS and, indeed, social care is good for patients and good for clinicians. I have seen countless examples of that in just my first two weeks in this job. I pay tribute to the Centre for Policy Studies report, which was launched by my predecessor and authored by my hon. Friend, which demonstrates how apps can be useful for making healthcare easier to access for patients. Apps are popular with patients, and I cannot wait to drive that forward.

22. May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment? Another new technology that really matters is MRI scanners. We have had a big fundraising campaign in Bishop Auckland for ours, but the problem with such fundraising campaigns is that they are of course easier in wealthy areas than in poor areas. Will the Secretary of State pay attention to evening out this uneven distribution of resources? (906629)

Yes, of course I will. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work to raise funds for the MRI scanner in Bishop Auckland, which benefits from great levels of philanthropy in some areas. The whole purpose of having a national health service is that, wherever people live in the country, they can get high-quality healthcare, free at the point of delivery, according to need. I stand by that principle, and I honour it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He will know that no regulator is prospectively examining the safety and effectiveness of diagnostic apps in use in the NHS. I wrote to his predecessor recently following concerns that were raised with me about Babylon’s apps, which could be missing symptoms of meningitis and heart attack, for example. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that, as these technologies are rolled out, patients have can have absolute confidence that they have been properly evaluated for safety and effectiveness? Will he set out how he will take that forward?

The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee makes a really important point. There is no greater enthusiast for technology than me—as you well know, Mr Speaker—but the thing about new technology is that the rules sometimes need to be updated to take changes in technology into account. The response when there are challenges such as the one my hon. Friend raises is not to reject the technology, but the opposite: to keep improving the technology so that it gets better and better, and to make sure that the rules keep up to pace. I spoke to Simon Stevens at NHS England about this only this morning—we have had a series of conversations in the past couple of weeks since I have been in post—and he is reviewing this exact question. I am absolutely sure that we will get to the right answer.

Is the Secretary of State familiar with the “GP at hand” online service? It is a partnership between a private company and a Fulham GP surgery, and it has poached thousands of profitable patients from GPs all over London, to the alarm of the British Medical Association and of GPs generally. My clinical commissioning group is investigating it, and in the meantime CCGs have blocked Babylon’s expansion to Birmingham on safety grounds. This is creating a two-tier system for GPs, so will the Secretary of State investigate it?

I am acutely aware of the question that the hon. Gentleman raises, not least because I am a user of the Babylon service myself—it is my GP. The important thing is to ensure that the rules are kept up to date so that we can get the benefits of the new technology, but make sure that it works in a way that ensures everybody gets high-quality primary care.

Warm congratulations to the Secretary of State.

Whether it is online consultations or more traditional, face-to-face ones, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking all the NHS staff who do fantastic work in taking care of my constituents in Chipping Barnet?

I certainly will. I pay tribute to the NHS workforce and the social care workforce who, every day of their working lives, give up their time to serve their community, to serve their fellow man and woman, and to ensure that we have the healthiest nation we possibly can. I love the NHS, as does everybody in the House. Almost everyone is touched by the NHS at some of the most difficult times in their lives. I pay tribute to the workforce.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I note his intention to extend online NHS services, but I hope that he will provide more detail about how he intends to guarantee patient safety, given that the Care Quality Commission reported this year that 43% of online GP and pharmacy services are currently unsafe. Will he reverse the cuts to capital funding so that safe technology can be installed? Furthermore, what steps will he take to ensure that elderly and vulnerable patients, who find it difficult to access online services, will still have the certainty of sustainable community surgeries?

Those are really important questions. On funding, I announced only last week £487 million to improve technology and technology services to ensure that they can be as high quality as possible. On patient safety, the key is to keep improving technology so that it gets better and better. On universal access, we must use technology in such a way that patients who want to access services through technology can do so, as that frees up resources so that more can be done for those who do not want to use technology, meaning that we preserve universal access.