UK doctor outlines application of remote consultation

Mobasher Butt
Mobasher Butt
Visiting British doctor Mobasher Butt is either a godsend or a devil, depending whom you listen to.

A keynote speaker at the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners conference, on now in Dunedin, Dr Butt is chief medical officer of Babylon, a company which uses technology such as smartphones and artificial intelligence to offer medical consultations remotely.

Babylon's 24/7 service has decreased waiting times and allowed people to consult medical professionals where and when they liked.

But it has been perceived as undermining the traditional consultation with a GP and many doctors have questioned if it can be as medically effective as a personal visit.

"I am a GP, and most of us have used a telephone while practising for many, many years, so we are quite comfortable with assessing a patient on the phone," Dr Butt said.

"Having a video image just helps give you that extra bit of confirmation."

Some of those attending the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners conference, on now...
Some of those attending the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners conference, on now in Dunedin.PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Dr Butt said Babylon had considered issues such as elderly or non tech-savvy patients, and offered support groups to help with train them or a caregiver or relative.

Phones could already be used to look down people's throats, examine joints or skin rashes, and technology was improving so soon chest and heart sound examinations could be conducted remotely.

While Babylon had human doctors available for phone consultations, it also had an optional chatbot AI "doctor" which could reference its own database to diagnose patients.

"That can tell them whether they have something they can just pop down to the pharmacy for or if they do need to visit a GP, and patients have found that a very useful guide," he said.

"I think it is an aid to doctors, and it is meant to augment clinical practice."

Models like Babylon interest New Zealand health administrators, particularly in the South, where telemedicine and greater use of technology are viewed as key ingredients of the primary and community health strategy.

Babylon is about to launch in Canada after a successful roll-out in Rwanda, and the company's experience there had lessons for New Zealand, Dr Butt believed.

Ashley Bloomfield
Ashley Bloomfield
"In the first year or so in Rwanda about 2million people have taken up the service, which is about 20% of the population, which is pretty staggering.

"We worked hard there to integrate with the existing healthcare system and designed our service to complement that ... we had to develop a specific version of the service for a basic feature phone because people there have less ownership of smart phones, but they can still access health services through it.

"The experience there shows so long as there is a desire by a patient to use the service, it can be modified to be something that is accessible to them."

Opening the conference, RNZCGP president Samantha Murton acknowledged some apprehension in the profession about firms like Babylon, but said it was important New Zealand GPs were aware of developments overseas and considering their impact or use here.

Health Minister David Clark yesterday thanked GPs for their work, and promised further support for rural GPs on top of the additional Budget primary health funding.

"I have received advice from the Ministry on ways we can further strengthen our rural workforce, and I hope to make some announcements about that in the near future."


Confined to augmenting treatment by practising doctors. There's more to patient consultation than etiology, like personal narrative, and Spirit.

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