“In the current context we don’t really have healthcare systems; we call them healthcare systems, but essentially they’re sick-care systems.”
According to Babylon Health CTO Gary Mudie, that we only seek care when we’re sick is a flawed system. In an ideal world, people would stay on top of things, get diagnosed earlier, and be more proactive.
Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, but for many companies in the health tech space, there’s a common frustration over the access to simple health services and how we can make them better. The dream is an easy technological solution that helps doctors and patients alike to stay on top of symptoms and diagnoses.
“If you could build a system that guides doctors on the consultation process in particular, you start reducing [diagnoses errors],” said Mudie. “More importantly if we can build a system that starts transitioning us away from being a sick care industry to a genuine healthcare industry then you’re making huge advancements for patients and doctors.”
London-based Babylon was founded in 2013 and has since grown into a team of 300 people. It’s built a service that caters to several different aspects of the patient/doctor relationship with video consultations and prescription deliveries.
It announced a $25 million Series A round in January from investors that included Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman, the founders of AI company Deepmind, now owned by Google.
It added to the list of several deals over the last 18 months or so, big and small, for digital health startups, like KRY, which raised €6.1 million in August and PushDoctor landing $8.2 million in January.
It’s now expanding on its AI component to help patients reduce their consultation times and waiting around to speak with a doctor.
AI is making lofty promises in every sector. In theory, an AI solution could help triage patients more efficiently, separating the potentially serious cases from the minor cases. But there will always need to be a degree of expertise from a real doctor.
All of the GPs on Babylon’s network are recruited directly through the company, which trains them to offer the appropriate service remotely. “There are a lot of techniques and skills our doctors have developed to do that effectively,” said Lindsey McConaghy, Babylon’s PR manager, adding that nine of out every 10 video consultations do not require an in-person follow-up appointment.
Given the sensitive nature of the work involved, Babylon needs to follow a lot of protocols for hiring doctors and making them available to patients. All its doctors in the UK are registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) but it’s also signed up some doctors in Ireland.
While Babylon’s system has been designed for remote consultations, it still tries to link users with a doctor that is relatively close by as well as matching them by specialty.
“[There are] different regulations around who can be seen by who, where and when. That was obviously established in the traditional days before technology was around,” said Mudie.
“In Ireland for example some doctors can’t see UK patients.”
“The nearest analogy I can bring this to is maybe the media industry that has to think about special content rules around whether you can display certain films or TV programs in different territories. It’s a very similar set of restrictions.”
Who needs health tech the most
The business of Babylon has forked into two different paths, namely developed and developing markets.
Babylon is currently working with the Rwandan government to provide a digital national healthcare service via the Babylon platform. “Rwanda has a population of around 12 million but doctor numbers are in the hundreds. There’s an imbalance between supply and demand,” said McConaghy.
The Rwandan trials are still in a testing phase. It’s a country with a clear need for a new solution, but Mudie and the team are conscious of digital health technology over-promising the benefits of the services.
Concerns aside, after raising its $25 million investment round, Babylon is continuing its push into AI-driven consultations, which in theory will free up doctors’ and patients’ time, but brings with it a host of challenges.
Babylon’s AI doctor should be able to triage patients initially and decide what needs more attention – how much trust can you place in it?
“It’s not going to tell you at this stage that you have diabetes or you have something very serious,” Mudie is keen to point out. “It’s more likely to say these conditions look like they need to be checked by a doctor.
“As the data advances, our backend systems will provide that data to our doctors but the doctors will still go through their own diagnosis measures,” he said.
Ultimately the final decision still lies with the human doctor. Mudie likens the scenario to the safety concerns around self-driving cars.
“At which point do you let the machine take over and drive? It’s going to be exactly the same in the healthcare industry.”
There is a big question mark over what point do you let the app do the diagnosing. It’s something healthcare professionals and health tech companies will have to grapple with for quite some time but more and more doctors, at least anecdotally, are open to the idea, according to Mudie.
2017 will likely be a big year for Babylon as it pushes into developing markets and expands further into Europe while it recently retained the services of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. Both routes are on the roadmap for signing up more patients and doctors young and old.
“As the domain of AI advances and in particular what I’m seeing, and I’ve been in healthcare now for six years, is the technology shift and the attitude particularly with the younger doctors but also the older doctors.”