What impact will the NHS’s move to the new Health and Social Care Network have?

‘The framework is open to any vendor that can meet the compliance criteria, so the number of suppliers is uncapped – and that opens things up significantly,’ says Carelink’s Darren Turner

Posted 14 August 2017 by Gary Flood

As many of our healthcare IT readers will know, the Health and Social Care Network is starting to replaces NHS healthcare network N3, one of the the largest virtual networks in the world. One company that recently achieved compliance on the new standard, Carelink, says the evolution is very significant; we sat down with its General Manager, Darren Turner, to find out more.

So what is Carelink, Darren?

We’re the healthcare business of Piksel, and I have responsibility for all aspects of the business, from operations and service delivery, customer relationships, sales and marketing, business development and P&L.

Tell me about your company and draw out your specific proposition to the public sector and NHS markets, please

Carelink is focused specifically on the NHS and providing managed network and infrastructure services into what is Europe’s largest private network, N3. We have been providing services into the NHS for the last 20 years, when a collaboration of Trusts asked us to help with some application development, followed by a request to host it for them on N3’s very early iteration, NHSnet.

We went through the necessary compliance body at the time responsible for the network, the NHS Information Authority. So you could say we really started out as an early managed hosting provider for NHS services, providing content and applications to reach the internal audience on the private network and to serve content out onto the Internet.

NHSnet moved onto N2 and then to today’s N3, and now N3 is being replaced by HSCN. At the start of August, I am delighted to say we successfully passed stage 1 HSCN compliance, and can now actively start marketing our services into the NHS. Carelink can now provide healthcare organisations connectivity into HSCN, secure internet connectivity, and, through partnerships, connectivity into JANET, the academic network and the Public Services Network (PSN).

Carelink’s ITIL-aligned managed services are ISO20000 and ISO 27001 accredited, ensuring the highest levels of security and availability, while we’ll also soon offer a range of cloud services through our own private cloud or through its partnerships with AWS, Azure and public sector cloud specialists UKCloud.

Carelink will provide a single management interface to these cloud environments, along with a portfolio of security and healthcare solutions, in order to simplify the supplier landscape and offer a one-stop-shop to meet the needs of health and social care organisations.

OK great, but what’s the background to this development?

After 20 years of being operated as a monopoly by BT, N3 was starting to show its age. Like most large monolithic contracts, they often seem attractive from the outset when you bundle lots of services together. But invariably, that bundled lot approach starts to become unattractive at a price level and also a technology innovation level.

There is little doubt the network achieved a lot, connecting over 1.3 million NHS staff, GP practices and clinics but N3, which was built as fortress to protect the NHS had become a prison that was inhibiting innovation and competition. The supplier model and the network itself had become incompatible with healthcare’s drive towards patient-centric and integrated care and achieving the aspirations of the Health Secretary’s Five Year Forward View and National Information Board’s Personalised Health and Care 2020.

In 2015, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave approval to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) – today’s NHS Digital – to replace N3 with the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN).  HSCN provides users with a competitive environment, not only in price terms, but around technology innovation and customer services.

Developed by NHS Digital in close collaboration with industry body Innopsis, it’s an absolute masterstroke in covenant, and more so in its technical design. The compliance and governance model ensures the network is well managed, controlled and is scalable. And the framework is open to any vendor that can meet the compliance criteria so the number of suppliers is uncapped and that opens things up significantly.

While it brings competition around price, beyond that it creates an exciting opportunity to provide diverse and innovative network and infrastructure services – it enables far greater interaction between the NHS and the outside world – social care, local government, private care, police etc. In my view, HSCN delivers the potential for much greater multi-agency collaboration and innovation. This is great for efficiencies and ultimately for delivering the high levels of care that we are all entitled to.

What will happen next?

The HSCN compliance process is broken down into three stages. Stage one is about designing the technical environment and ensuring that has been tested appropriately in terms of security – an IT health check which is essentially a penetration test. Assurances also need to be provided around business continuity, disaster recovery and information security management. When you pass that stage you essentially become a CNSP – a consumer networking services provider enabling you to provide NHS connectivity into the central peering exchange.

Stage two is the physical build out of that environment and connecting it to the central exchange. This process also involves rigorous testing and further security and service management assurances. If you are a mature network and infrastructure services provider with good security management and processes, this phase should be relatively painless… if you are not, then it will require considerable effort to pass stage 2 compliance. We hope to have this stage complete before the end of the year.

Stage three is final testing, prior to go live. The market place for HSCN services is due to go live in late September 2017, followed shortly afterwards by a Crown Commercial Services procurement framework (RM3825) which is currently under development in consultation with industry. Some aggregated procurements, on behalf of regional collaborations between health, local authorities, police and fire services, are already underway, actually, but the main migration waves are expected to commence in Q1 2018 and continue for the next two to three years.

What is the significance for the NHS clinician and patients of all this, in your view?

HSCN is not going to be a panacea in itself. But, it provides the foundation and conduits to enable policies of improved efficiency and patient care.

For NHS organisations, the big headline is going to be significant cost savings associated with HSCN. But beyond that, HSCN will bring the NHS into the modern world; it will enable it to operate more efficiently and provide the platform for new solutions that drive collaboration between associated agencies.

So really, this is a platform for innovation. For more remote locations there will be better options for connections. Every healthcare organisation, regardless of location, will get more bandwidth than it has today, which means service capability will be faster and data and information will move far more quickly.

Sounds fascinating and we’ll keep an eye out, Darren. Thanks for your time today!