Could This App Replace Your Doctor?

Babylon connects users with doctors for instant virtual consultations, and will soon use artificial intelligence for diagnosing illnesses


Ali Parsa’s ambitions are about as big as they come: he wants to “give affordable health care services to every human being on Earth.” His invention, Babylon, is a cellphone-based health care platform that monitors users’ health and connects them with doctors. It also incorporates health data monitoring, from pulse and blood pressure to liver function, using a combination of in-phone features and at-home test kits. 

Soon, Babylon will also use artificial intelligence to assess and even diagnose illnesses. The service is currently being used by 250,000 people in the UK, where the company is based, and Ireland, and it will become available in Rwanda. We talked with Parsa about his vision for Babylon and the future of global health care.

Can you give a basic explanation of how Babylon works?

You can make an appointment in seconds, you can see a doctor on your mobile phone face-to-face in minutes, and you can be diagnosed and processed and have drugs sent to your home in an hour or two, or you can pick them up at the pharmacy in minutes. All your clinical records will be on your mobile phone and accessible to you anywhere you are in the world. You pay £4.99 ($7.21) a month for unlimited amounts of consultation, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. If you need a specialist, we’ll connect you with one and you get an 80 percent discount. If you want a mental health consultation, we have psychologists and psychiatrists. These are at prices that anyone in Britain can afford, less than the price of an apple a day.

How can Babylon improve upon the current health care system?

The majority of people’s health care needs are for diagnostics, consultations, day to day stuff. But they say in Britain, one in five of us can’t get to see a doctor when we need. And that’s the NHS’s [Britain's National Health Service] data—that’s one of the best health care services in the world, in my view, in one of the richest countries in the world. But 50 percent of the world’s population has almost no health care. Almost all of them have a mobile phone in their hands. If you really want to have an impact on being able to give affordable health care services to every human being on Earth, we should figure out how to provide most health care straight on the mobile.

You’ll soon be incorporating artificial intelligence into Babylon. How will that work?

At the end of the day, there are only 3 million doctors in the world and there are 7 billion people. So the question becomes, how can you be scalable and affordably cover everybody? The reality is you need to do a lot of your medicine with artificial intelligence. There will still be doctors, but we need to allow machines to take care of the basic, simple stuff. In four week’s time, we are launching the world’s first artificial intelligence triage system. It will look at hundreds of millions of variations of symptoms and decide if you should talk to a doctor or go to a pharmacy or just wait a few days. At every stage in the process, you can say ‘well, I actually want to talk to one of the doctors,’ and you can talk to them in minutes.

The next thing we’re doing is that we are then allowing the machine to privately diagnose. That diagnosis is shared with a doctor as opposed to the patient [so the doctor can make the formal diagnosis]. Then the machine will listen to the conversation you’re having with the doctor, and will learn from the doctor. It also helps the doctor not make mistakes.

The artificial intelligence we’ve already built can do triage, and we think it’s very accurate. We think it’s actually more accurate than humans. Just mathematically, what it is doing is looking at combinations of hundreds of millions of variations of symptoms. No human mind can do that.

Could This App Replace Your Doctor?
Babylon's interface Babylon

What are some of Babylon’s limitations?

It certainly can’t do surgery remotely. There are many, many areas in medicine where doctors need to touch or manipulate or feel you. None of that can be done [remotely] today, although it is very interesting when you look at some of the developments in the gaming industry—gloves that can feel remotely and so forth. So much of that could be done in the future. Everything that cannot be done today we think can be done later.

You’ll be releasing Babylon to all Rwandan citizens later this year. Where else can we expect to see Babylon in the near future?

Understanding how you [unroll Babylon] in one of the richest countries in the world and in one of the poorest countries in the world, that’s going to be our primary focus in 2016. But we think once we’ve got a process that is simpler, that is cheaper, that is better than anybody else’s, then we should expand globally very fast.

How will Babylon develop in the future?

What we’re working on is starting to be able to predict your health. You used to take your car to the garage when it broke down, and the mechanic would open the bonnet and say what’s going wrong. That’s kind of what we do with our medicine today. But that’s not what we do with your car today. We have so many sensors and data that we can predict what will happen. If your brake pads are burning at a certain rate, you need to make a change. That’s what we’re working on with Babylon and your body.

Our team is trying to figure out how to predict your health and intervene before things go wrong. If you’re prone to depression for instance, you might be sitting home for three days straight looking at your phone. We can come in and say, ‘look, we’ve noticed that you’ve been at home for three days, and you’ve been reading your phone far too much, is everything OK? Would you like us to connect you to a mental health professional?’ We’re on the verge of being able to predict people’s health before it happens, and I think that’s incredibly exciting. 

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