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NHS Digital hopes for orderly transition to new Health and Social Care Network

NHS Digital’s Health and Social Care Network is gearing up to connect its first customers in the next month, in the first stage of a staggered transition process

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The Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), the NHS’ new network connectivity service which replaces the old N3 broadband service, is on track to go live in mid-October following a successful testing process, with a number of early adopter customers already lined up to start using it.

The transition period will be staggered over several months, according to Dermot Ryan, HSCN programme director at NHS Digital. “We’ll be allowing people onto the network in small numbers, turning the tap on slowly and making sure the network is working as expected before we start to move into a more volume migration type situation,” he told Computer Weekly.

“In the New Year, we will move into the ramp up, which will last until about June, and that’s when we’ll start to increment the rate at which we add people to the network,” said Ryan. “We don’t want to prove the network works with a number of customers and then suddenly slap 1,000 more on and find there are issues – we want to grow in a controlled fashion to be sure we are happy HSCN is performing as anticipated. The peak migration period, we think, will run from the summer of next year.”

A massive procurement process is now well in progress across the NHS, with multiple bodies coming together in regional aggregate procurements; such exercises are underway in London, South West England, and Yorkshire and Humberside, among others.

Ryan said that across the NHS as a whole, there was a good mix of customers who were very keen to get on with things and those who were still hanging back a little, but added that this was probably beneficial to the NHS as a whole.

“That works for us because we can’t migrate everybody in one big go; we want an orderly queue, so we’ll work with those that are most ready and the momentum is building.

“Time and again, it’s been shown in the NHS that the primary way people adopt things is through emulating what their peers have done. Once the snowball is going and we start to see the roll-out to customers procuring now, the momentum will build quickly,” he said.

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Earlier this year, NHS Digital made a huge effort to get NHS users to figure out exactly what their plans for transitioning to HSCN would be way ahead of time – whether that be going it alone, taking assistance from NHS Digital, or clubbing together in a regional procurement.

According to head of migration Patrick Clark, this objective was for the most part achieved, and NHS Digital now has a “good take” on who wants what.

“Since then we’ve been refining our thinking, going to collaborative organisations and regional procurements to give guidance, and assessing that plans are credible. For those that want our help, we’re going out to assess their requirements and timescales. Finally for those doing their own thing there’s a need to test that they’ve arrived at that position on a sound basis, on a basis of knowledge rather than just saying it,” he said.

Ryan added that a number of NHS customers had since changed their minds on how they planned to go about procuring HSCN services, with the majority of these moving away from forging their own path to taking part in regional procurements, or taking direct help from NHS Digital.

Darren Turner, general manager at Carelink, the healthcare arm of supplier Piksel, said that his overall impression of the work done to date on HSCN was a positive one, “which reflects the work NHS Digital has done in the run-up to this, and the way they’ve sold it,” he noted.

Carelink began hosting services on the NHS’ private network in the late 1990s, and was one of the first organisations to gain accreditation to do so. More recently, it has served as an N3 aggregator, delivering services across the BT-run network.

Stage one compliance

Towards the end of August 2017, Carelink became one of the first suppliers to achieve stage one compliance with HSCN, which means it has an appropriate technical design of its network infrastructure and how it connects to the central peering exchange – owned by Redcentric – security requirements, disaster recovery and resilience.

Stage two of the compliance process will see the organisation move onto building a physical network environment, connecting it to the peering exchange, and providing further confirmation around the service management process.

“We hope to have that completed by the end of the month, and then we would expect NHS Digital to come and audit our operations and ensure those confirmations we’ve provided are in place, and that we can evidence that,” said Turner. “Following from that, we can actually start to deliver services.”

Turner said he was not too concerned about increased competition for his business, partly because it had never really existed on the N3 network, which was effectively a BT monopoly.

“It’s a big world and, yes, there are 20-odd suppliers and there will be competition – but that’s a good thing, it drives innovation and makes people work harder,” he said.

Savings for the NHS

While money is obviously a huge factor in any conversation with the NHS, and the pressure is on suppliers like Carelink to ensure there is no race to the bottom, current models suggest that that HSCN services can be delivered at a significant cost saving to N3 services, said Turner.

“It could be up to half,” he said. “Of course, it’s very difficult to say because you have to model these things and make lots of assumptions because the service doesn’t exist and there aren’t customers yet – we have to assume how many customers we’ll have and our operating costs, but our indications are it’s going to be around that, maybe even better.”

When it comes to the willingness of the NHS itself to embrace HSCN, Turner said that by and large, the conversations he has had with N3 users have been positive ones.

“People feel they have been involved in the process and that helps a lot – we’ve all seen failed projects such as NPfIT [the failed National Programme for IT in the NHS] – complaints I heard at that time suggested there was no consultation and things were rushed thru by central diktat – that hasn’t been the case here,” he said.

Unprecedented levels of cooperation

Michael Bowyer, HSCN lead at public sector network supplier association Innopsis, said from his perspective, the levels of cooperation around HSCN were unprecedented.

“I hope what we’re seeing is consistency, enthusiasm and commitment to making this work. It has been a model in terms of how the public sector can procure infrastructure. The levels of engagement, consultation, and programme management has been beyond my expectation,” he said.

Bowyer said that because N3 was such an old, unfit for purpose network, many users were reaching the limits of their patience with it, and this meant that HSCN would very likely see strong take-up from the jump.

“NHS business development teams are already showing ROI on internal business cases based on efficiencies HSCN will – fixing the connectivity fixes a lot of IT problems that recipient users are seeing,” said Bowyer. “HSCN will be the foundation of a much more integrated health and social care service across England.

“The real stress test will be seeing the investment start to take place,” he said. “We’re tracking well. I’m confident the supply side is ready, and that NHS Digital is filling the hopper with these aggregated procurements as quickly as they can. I think we’re going to have a fascinating next few weeks as these opportunities come to market,” he said.

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