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I can do a better job than the NHS

25th May 2018

Ali Parsa thinks  his online GP service Babylon can change the world

Sabah Meddings, The Sunday Times

 

Ali Parsa has developed technology that enables patients to speak to doctors over the internet and book appointments

 

Twenty minutes into our interview, Ali Parsa’s phone buzzes. It’s a reminder that he has a speaking gig in a few hours at Imperial College. Two weeks ago, he was addressing a crowd of 12,000 at an Amazon bash in London. A quick search on YouTube lists scores of videos of Parsa centre-stage, enthusiastically talking about Babylon Health, the online doctor app he founded five years ago.

Yet the Iranian-born entrepreneur quickly insists he is an introvert who hates the spotlight: “I’m a very shy public speaker, so I try to do the minimum.” 

Parsa, 53, has developed technology that allows patients to speak to a GP over the internet using their smartphones. They can pay to book an appointment almost instantly with a doctor — swerving long waiting times at surgeries. The service, which has 1.4m users, is available 24 hours a day. Yet its tie-up with the NHS has attracted some criticisms.

For Parsa, who arrived from Iran as a teenager in the 1980s, Babylon is also the key to serving the 50% of people in the world too poor to access basic healthcare. “Two-thirds of all the money we spend in healthcare goes to doctors’ and nurses’ salaries.” Babylon, he says, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to save time in diagnosing patients and admin — meaning doctors can see more people.

 

Wearing thick black glasses and dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and trainers, it’s difficult to imagine Parsa as a Goldman Sachs banker — his job before he left to establish Circle Health hospitals. He is excitable, direct, and lacks a trait common among bosses of British companies: a filter.

 

On those who question his progress in Rwanda, where Babylon has launched a simpler version of its service, Parsa splutters: “These industry observers are sat here, in their cushy jobs . . . have they ever been to Rwanda? I have staff members here who almost lost their lives to malaria because they went there. Go and tell these people that Ali says you are a coward.”

Parsa is sitting in the boardroom of Babylon’s trendy office in London’s affluent South Kensington. Artificial flowers and ivy drip down the walls in the lobby — inspired by Parsa’s terrace at home in nearby Bayswater. It is here that Parsa and his team plan how to further their mission: to make healthcare accessible, affordable and in the hands of every human being on earth.

Babylon has enjoyed several early successes. Last month it struck a deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent to offer its technology to the group’s 1bn WeChat users. That deal — for an undisclosed sum — followed a similar tie-up with Saudi Arabia’s ministry of health in March.

 

Babylon lost £12.9m in 2016 — the latest figures available at Companies House. Revenue rose to £797,042 from £158,293. The company has so far relied on cash injections from investors, but Parsa adds mysteriously: “It’s possible we may not need to raise money again.”

He says he is close to signing several international deals, news that will be welcomed by investors, who include the founders of DeepMind, the AI developer bought by Google; the family of Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris; and Swedish investment vehicle Kinnevik AB — which employs Christopher Bischoff. He is the son of City grandee Sir Win Bischoff, and a director of Babylon.

Parsa fled Iran three years after the 1979 revolution. He travelled on his own across Europe, to seek refuge in the UK and was granted asylum aged 16. He stayed with a relative in Swansea for six months before moving out on his own. He has never been back to Iran.

While learning English, Parsa completed his A-levels and was offered a scholarship at University College London, to study engineering. A PhD in engineering physics followed. He went to work at Merrill Lynch in London and New York, before joining Goldman Sachs as executive director of European technology investment banking. In 2004, he co-founded Circle Health, which in 2011 became the first private company to run an NHS hospital. Initially, the company was a commercial success. It won the backing of powerful hedge funds, and listed on London’s AIM in June 2011. However, three years after Parsa left to establish Babylon, Circle was forced to pull out of its management contract at Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire. It was facing mounting pressure and heavy criticism of its performance.

Does he accept any responsibility for what happened after he left? Parsa looks shocked: “Absolutely not. It’s like asking Tony Blair to take responsibility for Brexit, or blaming Alex Ferguson for what happened at Manchester United two years after he was gone. We took it public and a bunch of lawyers and bankers came and sat on our board, and they had no idea how to run a business. In my view they utterly destroyed it.”

Part of the problem at Circle, he explains, is that a lot of people who shared his goals left when he did. Parsa looks across at his PR man sitting at the other end of the boardroom table. “I was speaking to Michael this morning, who was telling me he’s in Babylon because he believes in this vision. He wasn’t saying he was here because of his salary — or my haircut,” he chuckles. The PR man nods obediently, adding quickly: “It’s a remarkable vision.”

Parsa continues: “And if tomorrow someone else took this dream and shattered it, what do you think he’s going to do? He’s going to stay for five/six months because he needs the salary and then he will move on. That’s why when you create a company around a vision, everybody is attracted to that vision. They are missionaries, not mercenaries.”

Parsa says he is just at the beginning. Soon he will be able to predict when people will fall sick before they show any symptoms. He fiddles with what looks like a large silver ring on his finger — it’s actually a health-monitoring device that tracks his heart rate and sleeping pattern. He demonstrates the reading on his phone. Spikes in the graph betray when he has enjoyed a few glasses of wine.

Babylon is one of several online GP apps in the UK. Others include Push Doctor and The GP Service. However, Parsa says his use of AI to pre-screen patients makes Babylon uniquely able to work with the NHS. Parsa has a bold claim: he reckons he can offer three times as much service to patients as the health service, for the same money, and 24 hours a day.

Babylon has inked a deal with the NHS to allow patients in London free access to its online GP service by switching to Babylon. Yet since its launch last November, GP at Hand has been beset by criticism, and accusations of “cherry picking”. Doctors in Unite, the union for medical practitioners, claims traditional GP practices face a cash crunch due to the online service targeting younger, healthier people. Funding from their existing practice is removed when patients sign up to GP at Hand.

East London GP Jackie Applebee, deputy chairwoman of Doctors in Unite, said: “We rely on the fees we get for people who use the health service less to enable us to provide a better service to those who need us more.”

Parsa’s comeback? A bizarre comparison to Soviet Russia. “They are almost trying to imprison patients,” he declares. “Remember the Soviet Union when nobody was allowed to leave? What happened? Eventually, the dam burst. We do not find GP practices with great services and great customer satisfaction worrying about their patients leaving.”

I explain there are a few more points to address. “Please do, more,” says Parsa. “Because they are all rubbish and I love to hear this criticism.”

Babylon and Circle Health have one thing in common: they are both private companies that think they can do a better job than the NHS — with the same money. Does this mean more companies should be put in charge of our health service? Parsa doesn’t give a clear answer, but points towards France, Germany and Sweden, which have a heavy amount of private sector involvement in healthcare.

Nooman Haque, managing director of life sciences and healthcare at Silicon Valley Bank’s UK branch, insists Parsa is unfairly maligned as the poster boy for privatising the NHS: “I don’t know if Babylon will be a success, but he’s successful at deploying its technology, at building a very good team around him, and getting investors to buy into that vision — and those are the three key things you need.

“He has that sense of hubris you actually need when you’re changing an industry to a certain degree.”

Whether Babylon succeeds or collapses, Parsa will not have difficulty convincing investors of his next venture. Despite his bluntness, he has charm. His phone rings again and he hesitates before shutting it off, though I suggest he answer it. “It’s the ex-deputy chief executive of the NHS,” he says. “It’s not the kind of person you should say no to, but you’re more important.”