The NHS has become the first health service in the world to provide free, 24/7 healthcare via mobile phone following the launch of a new digital service offering virtual GP consultations.

Healthcare technology group babylon health has partnered with NHS GPs to launch GP at Hand, a free service that offers appointments within minutes via smartphone at any time of day, across London.

According to babylon, patients will be able to have a video consultation with an NHS GP typically in under two hours of booking, have prescriptions delivered to their pharmacy of choice, and can also play back their video consultation if necessary.

Also, they will be able to check their symptoms with “the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence to reassure themselves accurately on what they should do next,” the group noted.

“We do everything from grocery shopping to our banking online yet when it comes to our health, it can still take weeks to see a doctor and often means taking time off work for an appointment,” noted Dr Mobasher Butt, GP at Hand Partner.

“With the NHS making use of this technology, we can put patients in front of a GP within minutes on their phone, so the days of ringing frantically at 8am for an appointment should be long gone.

This new NHS service makes it easier for patients to see a doctor quickly at anytime and from anywhere and doesn’t cost the NHS a penny more. It’s a win win.”

The Royal College of GPs has, however, voiced concerns over the app.

“Technology can achieve wonderful things when used properly, but we are really worried that schemes like this are creating a twin-track approach to NHS general practice and that patients are being 'cherry-picked', which could actually increase the pressures on traditional GPs based in the community,” said its chair, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard.

The College is also concerned that patients are being given the option of switching back to their local surgery if they are not satisfied with the level of service offered by the app. “As well as issues with patient confidentiality and the safety of the patient record, it is hard to see how this could be achieved without adding to the huge burden of red tape that GPs are already grappling with,” Prof Stokes Lampard argued.

"While this scheme is backed by the NHS and offers a free service to patients, it is undoubtedly luring GPs away from frontline general practice at a time when we are facing a severe workforce crisis and hardworking GPs are struggling to cope with immense workloads,” she warned.