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Thu 19 Mar 2020 08:23 AM

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Saudi-backed healthcare app testing coronavirus service

Healthcare app Babylon Healthcare Services, one of the UK's best-known health-tech startups, raised $550 million from new investors such as Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund

Saudi-backed healthcare app testing coronavirus service

Babylon is one of the UK’s best-known health-tech startups. Image: @babylonhealth

Healthcare app Babylon Healthcare Services Ltd. is trialling a new form of text-based chat service that will allow users to report if their symptoms are worsening.

The new service follows a meeting last week held at Downing Street between UK adviser Dominic Cummings and representatives from technology companies, including Babylon, at which Cummings asked all present to suggest ways they could support the government and the NHS, which are under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.

The system, currently being tested internally, works like a conventional instant messaging service -- conversations can be quick, or span several days or more, according to a person with direct knowledge of the trial who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly.

The chatroom is designed specifically to address coronavirus concerns. Both patient and professional can maintain an ongoing chat to monitor if symptoms are improving or worsening, the person said.

“We won’t be releasing anything until we’ve fully tested it and we’re not commenting until then,” said a spokesman for Babylon.

Babylon is one of the UK’s best-known health-tech startups. Last year it raised $550 million from new investors such as Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, valuing the company at more than $2 billion.

The UK’s National Health Service already lets patients choose Babylon’s “GP in Hand” mobile consultation service as their official primary care provider, and the startup has claimed that its artificial intelligence software, in tests, can assess common conditions more accurately than human doctors.

But the start-up has come under strong criticism from health practitioners, and The Royal College of General Practitioners has also questioned the NHS for its partnering with the company. In 2018, U.K. health minister Matt Hancock was criticized for seeming to endorse Babylon in a British newspaper editorial authored under his name but sponsored by the technology company.

A roll-out could happen as soon as this week in the U.K. version of its app, and Babylon is working to extend the service to the U.S. as well, the person added. No specific timing has yet been decided or announced.

One of the U.K. government’s requests to the public is that they do not physically attend a doctor’s surgery or hospital if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Telemedicine has been shown to be an alternative as people self-isolate and seek advice.

This week, Babylon also added specific references to the coronavirus to its virtual symptom checker. If a patient reports symptoms such as a dry cough and fever, it will advise calling emergency services, in the most severe instances, or the NHS 111 service in the U.K. as a less urgent precaution.

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