Health Service Focus

01.08.17

A supplier network fit for an integrated sector

Source: NHE Jul/Aug 2017

NHE’s Luana Salles outlines everything health and care organisations need to know to prepare for the switch from the legacy N3 to a new, interoperable connectivity network with a rich offer of suppliers.

The NHS is undergoing major transformation. With ambitious visions including the sustainability and transformation plans (STPs), local digital roadmaps and the ‘paperless 2020’ target, it’s evident that the health service will have to move towards a more integrated, collaborative model of working in order to face these challenges head-on. 

It is only natural, then, that connectivity – the ability to enable health and care organisations to interact, share data and reduce duplication – changes with it. To replace what is now seen as a largely outdated system designed in response to requirements over a decade old, the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) has been created to ensure exactly that. 

The new network was designed to unseat N3, the single-supplier system managed by BT that was primarily created for providers to access national applications. N3 central contract arrangements were officially terminated on 31 March and existing N3 deals are operating via the HSCN Transition Network, until full migration takes place later this year. 

To keep up with the changing landscape of the sector, the HSCN promises to establish multiple and interoperable network arrangements that actively harness transformation, integration, place-based collaboration and more flexible workforce patterns. 

Headed by NHS Digital but steered by industry association Innopsis, the network will strive to create a more competitive marketplace for network services, with providers being able to, for the first time, exercise consumer choice and thus achieve greater efficiency savings. 

It will also be key to boosting collaboration by driving down the NHS’s infamous problem of duplication. Health bodies will be able to interact with each other and with local authorities in order to reuse and share existing network infrastructure and services – a rare phenomenon in the sector at present. 

“HSCN is different because it’s designed to meet the requirements of an integrated and evolving health and social care sector,” said NHS Digital. “It’s a standards-based network that enables multiple suppliers to provide connectivity services. HSCN enables health and social care organisations to create shared networks, which help deliver shared and integrated ICT services.” 

Suppliers large and small 

An interoperable ‘network of networks’, HSCN will be provided by multiple suppliers that will all have to adhere to established terms and conditions, shaped by Innopsis members. The Deed is in place to ensure all potential suppliers meet a minimum baseline of capability standards required to provide services, but NHS Digital promises it won’t require any “major investment”, thus maximising the amount of qualifiable companies. 

These obligations – published on the NHS Digital website – cover a number of different disciplines, some technical, others linked to security and some to service and performance management. Under them, NHS Digital will retain a level of power over the community so that, should a dispute between a buyer and a supplier arise, it can get involved. 

The terms and conditions have also been created to ensure SMEs are not shut out – in fact, several small companies had a voice in defining these standards. The ability to meet these obligations will vary from company to company, with some finding they already have robust enough practices in place to attain compliance quickly, while others may not be as ready. But the latter group will not be unduly disadvantaged: there are processes in place that allow them to engage with the market as quickly as possible. 

Preparing for the shift 

Ahead of the go-live later this year, NHS Digital is currently talking to N3 customers to plan their migration to the new network, with providers asked to consider what services will need to be replaced, such as connectivity services and ‘overlay’ products like video conferencing and remote access. 

“Customers will be responsible for procuring their own overlay services through independent procurement routes. Any overlay services currently on N3 will need to be migrated at the same time or ahead of the N3 connection,” explained NHS Digital. “Think about how you want to buy HSCN services, and when.” 

Despite this, Virgin Media Business research from April indicated that, based on a survey of 100 organisations, two-thirds of providers feel unprepared for the move, and nearly nine out of 10 indicated they needed additional guidance on the services that should be replaced or how they should access funds. 

Providers that don’t currently feel ready for the shift can obtain advice directly from NHS Digital, which makes guidance available online and via regional migration managers, or with Innopsis members. 

An array of procurement options 

Health and social care organisations will be able to source HSCN-compliant services through several routes, including aggregated procurements managed by NHS Digital on behalf of providers that aren’t able to do it themselves. These procurements, which will start in October and run throughout the course of this year, are designed loosely around STP footprints in order to support place-based change.

The level of central support for bodies that opt for this model will be high, with NHS Digital and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) running the end-to-end sourcing process entirely on an organisation’s behalf. 

The two bodies will work with customers to understand their requirements, which will then be built into the scope of STP- or region-specific aggregated procurement. This model of working is expected to save money on procurement costs and theoretically maximise value for money. 

The bodies that wish to buy and design their own services can opt for collaborative self-serve procurement, where they buy compliant services in partnership with the organisations they interact with most frequently; individual self-serve procurement, where they do it alone; or direct award, by using an existing contract or joining an existing regional network partnership. However, NHS Digital will be actively encouraging that organisations run or join competitions in the HSCN marketplace.

The collaborative self-serve model is available for customers who already have plans to work with health and care organisations on shared initiatives, as well as a good understanding of their own network requirements. The level of central support will still be considered high, since NHS Digital will work alongside CCS to help customers deliver these shared procurements. 

There are several collaborative procurement initiatives emerging at present, especially in STP areas, where some health and social care bodies are purchasing network services together using a single supplier framework or the new CCS HSCN national framework, which is due to be available towards the end of the year. These initiatives vary in style, with some involving just NHS bodies – such as trusts and clinical commissioning groups – while others, such as the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire STP in the south, may include councils.  

Acquiring services individually will be suitable for providers with no immediate collaboration plans or relationships that run their own procurement activity. This won’t constrain their ability to access or share data with others. This model of working will involve low to medium central support, with NHS Digital and CCS setting up the tools for customers to use but with little day-to-day involvement beyond that. 

The last option, a direct award, isn’t a supported option “as in order to achieve best value for money it’s advisable to test the market through competition/procurement”, NHS Digital said. It can be considered in the case of exceptional local circumstances, but should be raised with an organisation’s NHS England regional team first. 

A direct award would apply to customers who have a significant amount of years left to run on an existing N3 contract and may wish to use the same deal to obtain HSCN connectivity in the short term. It will involve a low level of central support, with NHS Digital only being able to offer advice. 

Overall, HSCN is expected to establish a highly-accessible network that will transform how bodies interact by enabling the sharing of “innovative and flexible” services, NHS Digital said, adding: “By collectively converging onto the HSCN, health and social care service providers will be able to reliably and cost-effectively exploit telecommunications and business services across locations and organisational boundaries.”

“HSCN is different because it’s designed to meet the requirements of an integrated and evolving health and social care sector”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.digital.nhs.uk/health-social-care-network

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