Public Services > Healthcare

Communicating HSCN: Why the government must act now

Published 09 February 2016

Mark Hall, public sector director at Redcentric, looks ahead to the rollout of the Health and Social Care Network which is now expected in 2017


The proposed Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) will be the successor to the NHS' current N3 national healthcare network. It was first proposed last year with the aim of improving existing infrastructures that would pave the way for greater collaboration and more effective data sharing of patient records. It will also provide a consistent approach to security within healthcare: an essential part of bringing together health and social care successfully.

Despite initial plans to roll out HSCN in 2015, the government recently admitted, albeit very quietly, that the project was now on hold and likely to be pushed back to 2017. While no reason has been given for the delay, deferring its launch does raise a number of challenges for those IT managers in the public sector responsible for managing data.

Why HSCN and why now?

HSCN aims to bring together different networks with the fundamental purpose of improving data sharing and driving efficiencies. It will, in theory, allow for greater collaboration between different networks, improve efficiencies and in all likelihood save the NHS money.

It's widely understood that the different health and social care networks must be integrated if we are to deliver improved patient care. HSCN will, in fact, bring care closer to the patient by providing a method for sharing data between health and social care sectors.

Take those in the community care area for example. Currently clinicians working in the community can make notes while with patients, but in many cases they have to wait until they are able to access the network to upload data - often waiting until they are home or back in the office. This means vital patient care information updates can be delayed by 24 hours or more and are, as a result, unavailable from one service provider to another. The delay could result in a GP not seeing drug changes made by a community nurse and prescribing additional medication that could prove to have serious consequences. HSCN will bring all those networks together so that records and data can be updated and accessed instantly using Wi-Fi or even mobile networks from wherever the carer is.

We're already witnessing improved patient services and care delivered over N3 but with HSCN, those same services can be shared more widely and securely. Care providers, such as MEDICA Group who already provide rapid radiology reporting services, in many cases in less than 20 minutes to hospitals and other healthcare departments, utilise N3 but over HSCN these X-rays or MRIs can be shared more widely and more rapidly.

Improving patient care is just one objective of HSCN. The network will also support future technology developments as well. This enables HSCN to support increasingly complex applications that will also enhance patient care. Over the past few years we've already witnessed new and innovative healthcare services that utilitise not just the availability of better bandwidth but also increasingly stable and secure networks. These foundations provide a platform for the likes of the NHS Innovation Accelerator Fellowship programme to promote and support the use of innovations so that they can be 'adopted quicker and more systematically throughout the NHS'. Some of its fellows include: a peer-to-peer social network to support patients, carers and health advocates; a clinical-grade genome analysis and decision support tool; and an evidence based, free, approved children's teeth cleaning app.

HSCN will also bring interoperability to the NHS. With technology traditionally siloed within different areas of the organisation, many of the networks, systems and services had no need to work together. But in more recent years this approach has proved to be limiting. Interoperability will enable innovation and allow services, such as mobility for example, to be delivered across open formats. This will support new initiatives, including Jeremy Hunt's recent announcement that he intends to give patients direct access to their patient records by 2016, whether that's by smart phone, device or PC.

In the waiting room

With the timeframe for HSCN now set to 2017, IT managers will face a number of issues in the intervening period. First there is a number of existing network contracts due to expire prior to this date. This leaves IT departments with a challenge: the need to re-sign those contracts at a great cost to the department and for longer than two years. Meaning that they won't be able to take advantage of HSCN immediately when it comes.

A two-year delay will also see other public sector networks, such as PSN and JANET, continue to grow without constraint. This may well cause capacity issue for HSCN as it looks to host all these on a single network.

While there are concerns over how HSCN will roll out. IT managers can rest assured. There will not be a 'big bang' switch over; rather the transition will be gradual with the two networks operating side-by-side in the short and possibly medium term.

According to the HSCIC website "Live N3 services will continue whilst replacement services are established. N3 users can continue to order N3 services in the normal way and any changes in these arrangements will be communicated in advance to customers. Further funding requests for N3 will be made as necessary to ensure continuity of service for customers. Our top priority is to ensure the service keeps running smoothly, while we design the best possible future service to serve the needs of the whole health and care sector."

The key now for IT managers in the NHS is to identify how to manage the transition. We believe that the technology supplier community will take a large element of ownership in delivering the benefits of HSCN. From innovations to support patient services and care, to the delivery of reliable networks and security of data: this will bring the benefits of the commercial sector to the public sector. Suppliers also recognise the challenges that public sector in-house teams are under so will look to play a very supportive role throughout the transition. We'll see continued transparency and flexibility from suppliers, as we've seen within the G-Cloud buying framework.

While we wait for HSCN, IT managers need to develop transition plans. They need to work with suppliers to decide how key services will operate both today and in a post HSCN future. And they need to clearly define how those services can utilitise HSCN to improve delivery. One unforeseen benefit of the delay to the network is that the NHS can use this time to prepare: to prepare to deliver efficiencies, better access, better security and ultimately better patient care.

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