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HSCN: Prescribing a smooth network transition for health and social care

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N3 is the NHS’ current national healthcare network and for nine years it has aided a fast and secure broadband connection for NHS organisations and employees. Now the government has proposed a replacement – the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN). The driver for the transition between N3 and HSCN is to introduce a more robust network, one that can enable effective data sharing of patient records, as well as ensuring consistent security. The government originally planned to roll out HSCN this year but has since announced that they don’t foresee the project being launched until 2017. Postponing it doesn’t just mean that the NHS has longer to wait for an improved network - public sector IT managers may be faced with an even more difficult transition process as they strive for a seamless shift between networks.

The case for HSCN is strong. One envisioned advantage is the collaboration with different public sector networks, such as PSN and JANET. This would provide health and social care public sector organisations sharing patient data, which could give them a greater and all-round insight into those that they are treating. For example, social care providers may need to adjust care according to medication that a GP has prescribed one of their patients. At present, a social care worker isn’t able to access this data in real time and therefore can’t deliver ‘joined-up’ care. HSCN would allow community health and social care workers to update records via mobiles or tablets immediately as opposed to doing so when back at home or to work, meaning that public sector workers can have quick access to accurate data.

We’ve seen the NHS evolve into providing innovative services that require better bandwidth and more stable and secure networks. Many of these initiatives are supported by the NHS Innovation Accelerator, which aims to support the NHS in quickly adopting proven innovations. HSCN provides better foundations for future technology development by supporting increasingly complex applications, and closely aligning it with the NHS’s key objectives of improving patient care and saving money.

But while HSCN seems like an ideal model for the NHS, its delays add to the difficulty of carrying out a smooth network transition. On the run up to HSCN’s roll-out, organisations may well be required to undertake contract renewals for existing public sector networks, such as PSN and JANET. IT managers will have no choice but to renew contracts that last longer than the time before HSCN is introduced; this could come at a considerable cost and mean that they can’t reap the benefits of HSCN straight away. A further challenge may also come as existing networks continue to grow. As the government intends to host multiple networks on HSCN, the new network will require a capacity that is perhaps greater than what is being developed. HSCN may not simply be big enough to perform its intended functions.

Fortunately, HSCIC has reassured us that the two networks can co-exist. By enabling them both to run side-by-side for a necessary period, NHS organisations should in theory have access to N3 while IT managers introduce replacement services. HSCIC has also announced that it will carry on making necessary funding requests for N3, meaning that it will continue to carry out maintenance work even once HSCN is launched.

Despite HSCIC’s support in rolling out the transition, it’s up to public sector IT managers to devise a strategy and to ensure that they introduce a secure, accessible and effective HSCN service. They should view the delay as an opportunity to develop a plan that establishes suppliers and key services, and only then will they be confident that they’re able to successfully exploit HSCN’s benefits.  

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