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NHS 'needs telecoms-style revolution'

British healthcare is in need of radical shake-up akin to the telecoms revolution of the 1980s, when a wave of private sector firms entered the market, according to a prominent health entrepreneur.

Ali Parsa, founder of health app Babylon and the former boss of private hospital operator Circle , said the UK has "as good a chance as any other country" in becoming a leader in global healthcare - but says the sector must support growing digital health firms in order to develop a credible export.

"If we want to win globally, if we want to take healthcare from a national cost into a national generator of revenue, we need to do with healthcare what we did with telecoms 20 to 30 years ago, which is allow our best companies to flourish inside our own health system," he told the Press Association.

Following BT's privatisation in 1984, Margaret Thatcher's government ushered in several private sector players to the British telecoms market.

While centralised health systems like the NHS are "very powerful", it can be difficult to push through changes or adopt new technologies at swift pace compared to private systems such as in the US, Michael Kunst, the head of EMEA healthcare practice at consultancy Bain, said.

"In terms of ability to implement and drive change quickly and be nimble and on the forefront, I think you run into all kinds of issues that large organisations like this have," Mr Kunst said.

But Babylon has still managed to clinch contracts with the NHS, and is currently working with two GPs practices in Essex and is running a 12-month trial with Yeovil District Hospital.

The app gives patients the option of using video calls on mobile phones to hold remote appointments with GPs and subsequently arrange referrals or prescriptions.

It also integrates with wearable devices, uses machine-learning to give guidance on patient symptoms, and offers home blood test kits.

Mr Parsa launched Babylon in April 2015, three years after stepping down as chief executive of Circle, the staff-owned healthcare firm he founded in 2004.

The former Goldman Sachs investment banker made the move months after Circle took over Cambridgeshire's Hinchingbrooke Hospital in a £1 billion deal, making it the first NHS hospital to be managed by a private company.

Circle withdrew from Hinchingbrooke in 2015, just three years into the 10-year contract, citing "unprecedented" A&E demand and a 10% cut in funding.

It prompted criticism from MPs who said that Circle's savings projects were "optimistic and unachievable" and that private management at the time was an "innovative - but ultimately unsuccessful - experiment."

Mr Parsa says he would "love to keep Babylon in the UK", but said it required further leniency from the NHS - opening up to Britain's "digital champions" so that those companies can develop a track record "that they can then sell to the world".

"I think it's a two-way street. We're committed to the UK but we want to see the same commitment from the UK to digital health businesses that are not invented inside the NHS.

"But I think it is true that anything to do with the NHS in Britain becomes so politicised so quickly that often people kind of try to stay away.

"I mean, other countries are easier, and we need to grow up about this."

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