21 October 2016
Gareth Ricketts, health sector lead, Updata
The NHS of the future, envisaged by the Government's Five Year
Forward View, will be highly personalised and focused around the
needs of each individual patient.
Key to achieving this goal will be more innovative and effective
use of technology across all aspects of health and social care
provision - whether through better use of analytics to predict
need, or through sharing information across organisations.
New network provisions for the NHS will come into force in less
than six months, and will be absolutely crucial to this vision of a
better connected NHS.
And yet there is a worrying lack of awareness among health and
social care providers about both the impending deadline, and the
new opportunities for efficiency which the new network could bring
With the termination of the N3 (NHS National Network) contract
in March 2017, it is time to consider the urgent need for change,
how the new world of NHS network connectivity will impact health
and social care services and the preparations NHS bodies need to
make now in order to build the NHS of tomorrow.
NHS Digital (previously Health and Social Care Information
Centre (HSCIC)), which manages N3, has recognised that the
requirements for information sharing and network access have
transformed dramatically since its inception, and is seeking to
address this head-on with the new Health and Social Care Network
N3 is the single-supplier network which allows NHS providers to
access national applications and information. It was designed more
than 10 years ago and is a national private network, managed
centrally and delivered by a single supplier on a long-term
N3 is no longer fit for purpose to meet the needs of an evolving
health and social care service, as it lacks flexibility and
agility. One of the limitations of the N3 is the N3SP portal, where
customers have to pay a premium for extra bandwidth to meet their
particular needs - it is unpopular and an expense users would like
HSCN will create an open marketplace of certified service
suppliers. It will open up the landscape for more competitive
pricing and a diverse supply chain, as well as encouraging
New operators have emerged with fresh approaches to sourcing
network bandwidth and software defined networking, providing the
NHS with much more flexible and cost-effective solutions. This open
marketplace aims to eliminate one of the most unpopular features of
N3 - its lack of flexibility.
The HSCN is designed to offer an interoperable network between
health and social care organisations, both within the NHS and
outside. It will result in greater integration of health and social
care services, flexible and remote working and access to national,
regional and locally-hosted applications - while reducing reliance
on central infrastructure and services.
At the heart of this transformation is better patient care and
improved patient outcomes through a cost-effective network.
There are significant obstacles to overcome before the new
arrangements come into force next year. NHS Digital needs to ensure
continuity of service for all NHS organisations in order not to
disrupt care, and there are the obvious physical challenges of
installing a new national network.
But given the ambitious timeframe within which this new
marketplace needs to be established, the first and most pressing
challenge which needs to be overcome is communication within the
health and social care industry.
The terms of the existing N3 contract expire in less than 6
months and do not allow for any further extension. And yet there
remains a distinct lack of awareness within many NHS organisations
of the impending contract end, or where they should go for
Many are unaware of the options that will become available to
them through the HSCN and the benefits that being able to shop
around will offer. There is a compelling need for NHS organisations
to plan what they intend to do to replace their existing
infrastructure as soon as possible, and to make sure that
replacement connectivity is cost-effective, secure and
To overcome what could quickly become a vacuum of information,
NHS Trusts, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and Commissioning
Support Units (CSUs) should be seeking out third party suppliers
now; to talk through what steps are needed to effect a smooth
transition to the HSCN, what the best fit is for their organisation
and to ensure patient services are not affected.
The new HSCN will undoubtedly change NHS connectivity for the
better. The open market will kick suppliers into action and drive
competition and the end results will mean more efficiency and
agility for customers.
However, it is clear that more needs to be done to communicate
the benefits. NHS providers have the opportunity now to explore the
marketplace and get the best possible deal for their practices and
patients, but they need to move quickly if they are to make the
most of this opportunity.