Babylon’s GP at Hand adverts have been banned by the advertising watchdog for not making it clear to patients they would be giving up their existing GP practice registration.
The private company has been advertising its online-first GP alternative to patients across London since going live last November, with over 40,000 patients signing up to the app.
But in a ruling unveiled today, the Advertising Standards Authority has banned the company’s adverts – which featured heavily in a campaign on the London Underground as well as via Facebook – for ‘misleading’ patients.
The news comes as health secretary Matt Hancock has come under criticism from GP leaders for endorsing the GP at Hand app and claiming it ‘takes pressure off’ other GP providers.
The ASA said eight complainants, including a GP, challenged whether the ads were ‘misleading’ on three points, all of which were upheld. It found the adverts did not make clear that:
- In order to use the services advertised patients must leave their current GP practice.
- The service was only available to patients who lived or worked in the catchment area of GP at Hand’s five physical locations in London.
- Patients would only be able to ‘See an NHS GP in minutes’, as the advert claimed, once they had completed a registration process which could take days or even weeks.
The ASA said it ‘considered that consumers were likely to regard the service provided by GP at Hand as an additional service to supplement the service that they received from their current GP’.
The ruling said: ‘We considered that because users of the service would need to change their GP in order to make use of it, this was material information that consumers should have been made aware of in the ads. This information was likely to affect whether or not a consumer would investigate the service further.’
ASA’s ruling said Babylon stated its sign-up process clarified to patients they were leaving their old GP, but ASA considered that if patients had been informed of this in the advert they may not have made the ‘transactional’ decision to begin the sign-up process in the first place.
‘Because the ads did not make clear that consumers must change their GP to use the service, we concluded that the ads were misleading,’ the ruling said.
It further said that ‘because the fact that GP at Hand was a local service available only to people who lived or worked in some areas of London was material information, and that was neither made clear in the ads nor were the ads targeted to consumers who were eligible to sign up to the service, we concluded that the ads were misleading’.
And that because ‘consumers could have to wait several days or even a week or more before they were registered with the service and able to make use of it for the first time’, the claim of being able to ‘see a GP in minutes’ was also misleading.
The ASA has ruled that the GP at Hand adverts ‘must not appear again in their current form’, with the company told to ensure any future ads did not mislead patients in the same way again.
Maurice Hoffman, a patient based in Wembley in northwest London and who was the first complainant, said: ‘GP surgeries receive funding from the NHS according to how many patients are registered with them. The more patients they have, the more money they get from the public purse.
‘The ASA has put a spoke in the wheel of outfits such as the Babylon Healthcare GP at Hand service by preventing blatant misleading of consumers in an exercise that was essentially poaching patients away from their existing GP surgery.’
Mr Hoffman added that he would like to see the Department of Health and Social Care updating NHS funding to ensure that GP patients across the country ‘have the choice of being able to access services digitally if they need, and wish to do so’.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘The BMA has been vocal in its concerns about GP at Hand from the outset, and we are glad that someone is finally taking action and censuring the provider for the dubious way it operates.
‘Not only does GP at Hand exploit out-of-area arrangements and cherry-pick healthy, young patients, but it has done so without being clear with the public from the beginning that by using the service they will be deregistering from their own GP.
‘As the ASA ruling notes, patients are likely to assume this is a quick, convenient service that works in conjunction with their own GP, but the reality is far from this. By signing up with GP at Hand, patients will lose out on all of the advantages of being registered with a local practice – primarily face-to-face appointments with a familiar doctor who has full access to their medical record and can provide holistic, person-centred care from within the community.’
Dr Vautrey added that ‘local practices must therefore be supported in embracing technology and providing online consultations to their own patients’.
‘GPs are not anti-tech – but innovation must not come at the expense of the high-quality, expert care being provided to patients in surgeries up and down the country,’ he said.
NHS England is currently reviewing GP contractual funding in a bid to promote ‘digital-first’ models, but the BMA has said the plans are ‘not appropriate’.
A GP at Hand spokesperson said: ‘This ASA judgement refers to GP at Hand advertisements placed online as well as in and around Central London over nine months ago. At that time, our advertisements stated that you can see an NHS-registered GP “in minutes, for free, 24/7”.This is indeed something you can do once you’ve registered as a GP at Hand member.
‘The sign-up process and eligibility criteria are clearly explained in detail via our app and website. Insurance advertisements, for example, are not required to specify that prospective policy holders need to “register” or “apply” in order to obtain cover. We think the process of “registering” is self-evident and clearly understood by the public.
‘The ASA took a different view, however. So, in response to the eight complaints received, we’ve made some minor changes to our GP at hand advertising to make the sign-up process and eligibility criteria even clearer.’
This story was first published on our sister publication Pulse.