A poster featured across London Underground for Babylon Health’s GP at Hand and other adverts for the service have been banned, after the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) ruled they were ‘misleading’.

The ruling body investigated three issues about the poster, a Facebook post, a website and an app for the service, which allows patients to book appointments and talk to a doctor through their smartphone.

The poster, seen on London Underground platforms and trains in November 2017 and February 2018, claimed users could ‘See an NHS GP in minutes for free 24/7’, with the NHS logo in the top right corner and ‘GP at Hand powered by Babylon’ appearing in the bottom right.

The paid-for Facebook post, seen in December 2017, stated: ‘See an NHS GP in minutes from your phone for free 24/’ above an image of a video call with a doctor on a smartphone and text which stated ‘See NHS doctors in minutes’.

The GP at Hand website, seen in December 2017, stated: ‘See an NHS GP in minutes for free 24/7 … Sign up in 3 minutes’.

Finally, the GP at Hand app stated: ‘See an NHS GP in minutes for free … A simple, secure & convenient way to access NHS healthcare’. At the bottom right corner of the screen, text stated ‘Providing NHS services’ below the NHS logo.

Eight complaints, including from GPs, were made against the adverts for being misleading, as they did not make it clear that in order to use the services advertised, patients must leave their current doctor.

Additionally, they did not state that the service was only available to patients who lived or worked in the catchment area of specific GP surgeries.

Complainants also pointed out that registering with a new GP after joining the service could take up to three weeks, challenging the ad’s ‘see an NHS GP in minutes’ claim.

‘Poaching patients’

Maurice Hoffman, a lay member of the National Institute of Health Research Diagnostic Evidence Co-operative (DEC) in London, was one of the first to enter a complaint, and suggested the ASA ruling was a victory for consumers.

He said: “GP surgeries receive funding from the NHS according to how many patients are registered with them. The more patients they have, the 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.”

Babylon argued potential users were made aware of the fact that they would have to de-register from their current GP ‘several times’ before they sign up for the service.

They also said patients did not need to live in the normal catchment area of the surgeries in order to make use of them, and that patients living within 40 minutes travel time of one of the five surgeries were entitled to use the full GP at Hand service.

Responding to the final complaint surrounding the ‘See an NHS GP in minutes’ claim, Babylon argued this was a description of the service, ‘once potential customers had registered’.

However, all three issues raised by the complainants were upheld and ASA ruled the adverts ‘must not appear again in their current form’.

The ruling added: “We told GP at Hand to ensure that future ads made clear that consumers would be replacing their current GP service with GP at Hand, that the service was only available to those that lived or worked within the catchment area of specific GP surgeries and that consumers would need to wait until they were registered with a GP at Hand surgery before being able to use the service.”

A spokesman for GP at Hand 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.”

Hoffman suggested that the ASA ruling would serve to alert the DHSC “on just how outdated the rules are on how the NHS is funded.”

He said: “The NHS should live up to its name in being national and providing a service.  That’s what people need, want and expect.  The funding rules are now long past their sell-by date.

“In this day and age, there is an expectation that people should  have the choice of being able to access services digitally if they need, and wish to do so.”