Babylon, the British digital health start-up that uses artificially intelligent algorithms to assess illness, has struck a deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent to offer its technology on the group’s hugely popular WeChat social messaging platform.
The deal will give WeChat’s almost 1bn users the ability to message medical symptoms to Babylon’s app, which will send back healthcare advice, and propel the company into China’s huge medical market.
It is the second international deal signed by the company in the last two months, following a similar arrangement Babylon signed with Saudi Arabia’s ministry of health last month.
Tencent and Babylon did not disclose the financial terms of the licensing agreement.
“We are incredibly focused, now that we have built the technology, on taking that technology global,” said Ali Parsa, Babylon’s chief executive, who founded the London-based company five years ago.
Babylon has more than 1.4m users to whom it offers paid-for video consultations with human doctors in addition to a free automated symptom-checker. Almost half its users are based in the UK, with the remainder spread across Rwanda and Ireland.
Mr Parsa has sought partnerships with big tech companies and public health services such as the UK’s National Health Service, which is increasingly willing to experiment with new technologies to ease the burden on doctors, cope with public spending cuts and an ageing population.
Babylon’s deals — which include an agreement with Bupa, the private healthcare provider, and the NHS’s non-emergency helpline 111, to help provide triage services for non-essential health problems — have been relatively small.
The company agreed a second trial with the NHS in November to allow about 1m Londoners to switch from their local surgeries to use the app as a first point of contact.
But the scheme has remained in trial mode amid a backlash from doctors, who say Babylon is “cherry-picking” the easiest patients, and say the app could be unsafe or increase pressure on the public health system.
Daniel Ray, director of data for NHS Digital, the body in charge of healthcare data in the UK, told the Financial Times that using AI in healthcare offered huge possibilities but also raised questions about safety, data privacy and accountability. “There is the potential for a big opportunity for artificial intelligence in the NHS but there are a number of things that we need to do to make sure that we get it right through regulation,” he said.
The NHS has launched a working group to discuss regulation for AI after a number of other technological breakthroughs including by Google’s DeepMind, which has developed an algorithm for analysing medical images.
Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman, founders of DeepMind, are investors in Babylon.
Doctors have also raised questions about the efficacy of Babylon’s diagnostic tools, pointing to biases in AI algorithms that learn from historic data sets to predict future patterns.
Babylon says it is registered as a so-called “class 1 medical device manufacturer” under rules set by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products regulatory authority.
But Margaret McCartney, a GP and healthcare writer, says existing standards are ill-equipped to analyse artificial intelligence.
“I am concerned that they have not commissioned adequate safety testing,” she said. “Class 1 [status] is what you give to spectacles . . . I suspect there isn’t a sufficient regulatory framework in place to look at this sort of thing.”
The challenges with the NHS could be one reason why Babylon is looking for opportunities abroad.
Sam Smith, a campaign co-ordinator at medConfidential, an organisation that lobbies for patient confidentiality, says the company is likely to meet lower resistance in countries with less developed health services and regulations.
“This sort of thing makes sense on communications platforms particularly,” says Mr Smith. “If your doctor is also on WeChat then you’re never deleting your WeChat account.”
Tencent has invested in We Doctor, a Chinese online healthcare provider, but said that Babylon was a “leader in this technology”.
“Tencent is committed to improve our users’ lives through the means of digitalisation and technology,” said Meng Zhang, general manager of Tencent Medical.