Doctor's orders: how Ali Parsa plans to make digital health startup Babylon 'the Google of healthcare'

Ali Parsa, founder of Babylon.

For the latest installment of our Big Interview series where we catch up with some of the world’s most exciting business leaders, The Drum makes an appointment with Ali Parsa – founder and chief exec of digital health startup Babylon – to find out about his plans to become the Google of healthcare.

“I was in Brussels for a speaking engagement when I got very ill, with a high temperature. As I got off the stage and made my way to the cab I made an appointment with a doctor. I spoke to the doctor on the way to the airport and when I landed at Heathrow there was someone waiting for me with antibiotics. I did this through the Babylon app. Bill Gates can’t get this done, right? And that is who we are. Not just an AI system, but an end-to-end healthcare service.”

This is just one of the stories Babylon’s founder, Ali Parsa, tells me in explanation of how his diagnostic platform really works.

As well as a consummate storyteller when it comes to the intersection of modern technology and healthcare innovation, Parsa also oversees 500 of the “world’s finest engineers” who are building an AI offering that acts as a screening service, directing patients to human professionals when necessary.

But unlike other apps that check symptoms or monitor fitness and weight goals, Babylon is the first to offer a comprehensive service. Patients can book scans and x-rays, or get instant referrals to Babylon specialists or Bupa consultants if a face-to-face consultation is required. And prescriptions can be delivered directly.

The app – available on both iPhone or Android – is priced in the UK from an affordable £5 a month or £50 a year. Patients can also opt for a pay-as-you-go-service, which charges £25 per consultation.

Doctor in your pocket

Babylon has also found its way on to China’s most popular app, WeChat, through a deal with Tencent, and on to the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones in the UK as a pre-installed app through a deal with Samsung. The service is expected to be rolled out in the US later this year.

“Did you know that the day Samsung promoted the fact Babylon is now available on all its phones we were getting 12,500 registrations on the app an hour? How many other products or services can match that?”

Parsa quickly adds: “This is not about me saying I’m great. I came here as a refugee from Iran in the 70s and now don’t need more money than I already have. But what I recognize is that, globally, we have a problem in healthcare.

“The global GDP is around $70tn and $10tn of that goes into healthcare. As 50% of the world’s population receives no healthcare, all of that money is going on just half of the world’s population. On top of that, the world is short of 5 million doctors. That’s cruel, but it is a problem that can be solved. We’ve shown it can be done.”

There are now some 3 million registered members of Babylon worldwide. In Rwanda it goes by the name Babyl and operates a universal health coverage scheme in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Health. In the UK there are over 30,000 users signed up to its service across central London (among them the health secretary Matt Hancock) after the NHS awarded Babylon the contract to provide digital technology and consultations in the UK capital – there is no charge to use the service if a patient is registered with an NHS GP practice that offers it. This hasn’t saved Parsa from a merciless media attempting to paint him as a bogeyman – a tech provider ready to disrupt and privatize a 70-year-old publicly-funded healthcare institution.

The problem solver

He has little time for skeptics, though, and points to the words written large on the walls of the company’s South Kensington offices: ‘Our mission is to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on Earth.’

They are words Parsa repeats throughout our conversation as he compares Babylon to Uber, Sky, Google and even Amazon. He wants to do for healthcare what Google did for information, what Uber did for transportation and, indeed, what Amazon did for books.

At the same time he refuses to view Amazon as a threat, saying that, at best, Bezos’ e-commerce giant is thinking only of delivering drugs and as such is a competitor to the likes of UK pharmacy chain Boots, rather than to GPs.

“What Amazon or Alexa can do with AI is a very wide layer. We are a very narrow but deep layer of AI, which is why Tencent is taking Babylon inside Tencent and Samsung has done the same.

“At the moment we don’t have any competition, but if tomorrow Amazon did succeed in doing what we’re doing and Babylon did cease to exist, I wouldn’t really care. Babylon would have instigated a solution to one of the biggest problems we have – the shortfall of healthcare to all.”

Innovation for all

Does he ever wish Babylon had launched in the US first, where the appetite for entrepreneurship and new technologies is perhaps greater than the UK?

“I’m amazed about the vitriolic way one or two doctors attack me – it’s always the same people. But being an entrepreneur is not a popularity contest, it’s just a set of beliefs. If somebody dislikes it that’s their problem.”

As a remainer in the Brexit debate, Parsa says he doesn’t believe that, just because one vote has taken place, a country cannot allow its citizens another once negotiations have taken place. That is not fair, he says. The optimist in him thinks, whatever the final outcome, Brexit won’t determine the future of the country. Instead it will be this: “Are we going to be an enterprising, forward looking, future striving country or a backward looking provincial part of the world?

“Are we a kind of country that cherishes innovation and allows its best to flourish? Are we a fair society that also allows those who are less fortunate have a great life?”

It will be these points that define the prosperity of the nation in the future, he says.

“And anyway, I don’t want to emigrate again. I’ve done it once and hope this place works.”

So, what is his ultimate ambition for Babylon?

“We want to create an AI doctor you can rely on. Our primary care AI at the moment is 80% as accurate as a human doctor, but that is a fraction of medicine. Now we need to train machines to do gynecology, orthopedics, paediatrics etc.

“I want healthcare to be in the hands of every human being.”

To learn more about the healthcare marketing sector, pick up a copy of The Drum’s October issue, where we explore how creatives and marketers are thriving despite stringent regulation; discover how changing attitudes to food and health are fueling the vegan dollar; and look at the medical and health subscription startups that could change the way we manage our health.

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