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Expert comment: HSCN procurement – top tips for health and social care organisations

HSCN

The Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) is a new data network launched by NHS Digital in November 2017 to replace the existing N3 network. HSCN was brought in to enable NHS organisations to access and share information more reliably, flexibly, efficiently and more cost effectively

As well as providing health and social care organisations with more bandwidth, access to centralised services and connections across multiple sites, all at a reduced cost, HSCN has one hugely significant differentiator from its predecessor. HSCN allows multiple suppliers to provide connectivity services, opening up the provision of network connectivity to the 17 HSCN-compliant suppliers in a competitive marketplace.

As of April 2018, approximately 300 health and social care organisations had launched HSCN procurements, accounting for over 6,000 sites (or 55% of the health service’s estate). For the other organisations beginning to think about moving to the HSCN, the ever-increasing number of procurement models and greater choice of providers can be a daunting prospect. With so many different factors to take into account, it is the organisations that take the time to understand the process and consult with the supplier community that will reap the most benefit.

With increased pressure from NHS Digital to join HSCN by the end of 2020, what exactly should these organisations be looking out for, and what questions should they be asking themselves?

Use the network as a springboard to support your business function

NHS Digital launched HSCN to provide health and social care services with improved connectivity to provide better, more efficient patient care. Not only that, but HSCN was implemented as part of the NHS 5-year plan to advance healthcare service through rapid technological change.

The main challenge for HSCN and organisations approaching migration onto the network is that there is a distinct knowledge gap around what HSCN can offer health and social care. With many believing HSCN to be nothing more than a connection to the NHS, many are unaware of its potential to address their short and long-term digital requirements.

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HSCN connectivity provides organisations with the opportunity to achieve the goals laid out in their long-term digital strategy, whether that be with regards to patient care or improved clinical performance. Prior to entering a procurement process, organisations should think strategically about what their HSCN connection will be used for and how it will underpin the link between network function, and current and future business objectives. Failure to do so could see organisations not only hinder their digital transformation efforts, but could also see them left with an ill-fitting solution.

Understanding which procurement method is right for your organisation

No two procurements are the same. The different models available mean entering a procurement process can be a minefield. Organisations looking to migrate onto HSCN need to assess what they need from their new connection and consider what they want it to provide in the future. This might be increased bandwidth, cloud adoption or overlay services such as video conferencing, voice services or remote access. For those organisations unsure about which procurement approach to follow, starting pre-engagement with an accredited HSCN suppliers is a great way to develop a better understanding of the market landscape and the type of connection that may be the best fit for them and the additional services the supplier could provide. This will be key to ensuring that they find the right solution for their particular needs and select the best supplier for their purposes - the right partner will be able to support and guide a healthcare service towards its vision and provide their own evaluation of the organisation’s needs.

There are two main ways in which organisations can approach the procurement of HSCN services: single-source procurement or collaborative procurement. Opting for the former will see organisations opt to go it alone, giving them autonomy to procure their own HSCN service, without the potential support and expertise of other healthcare organisations that may be local or add economies of scale to the procurement.

The latter option involves participating in a collaborative procurement which can either be led by NHS Digital known as aggregated procurements, or by other local health and social care services that come together for a procurement that may be led by one of the partners. While the input of several healthcare stakeholders can prove beneficial during a collaborative procurement, it can also complicate matters. Organisations who are involved in large-scale collaborative procurements but are unsure of what they need from their connection risk taking a back seat as part of an aggregated framework. The result could be the realisation at the end of the process, once services are in delivery phase, that their new connection is not fit for its specific purpose. This can at times lead to unexpected rising costs and extended timelines as suppliers draw up new contracts to resolve the issues. With NHS Digital’s deadline for HSCN migration fast approaching, this is a significant concern.

Size matters and it’s not “one size fits all”

As both approaches have their own specific pros and cons, one important factor that should be taken into consideration prior to beginning a procurement process is size. Smaller healthcare organisations such as health centres or pharmacies will be better suited to single-source, simple connections, as they will be unlikely to require more than a reliable connection to the NHS database to access necessary patient information. This eases the process of procurement, whereby organisations will simply need to source quotes from HSCN-accredited suppliers, and make their choice according to supplier suitability. The approach also gives them the flexibility to choose a partner that will support their own digital vision, and ensure their HSCN connection is the best fit for their needs.

However, for larger organisations and groups of multiple sites, such as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and Commissioning Support Units (CSUs), as well as Acute Trusts and Mental Health Trusts which encompass a wide range of practices and support a number of services, a competitive procurement process is more desirable. An aggregated approach is often recommended here as it can be beneficial where large groups of sites are considered. Suppliers will likely propose that the largest stakeholder within the collaborative leads the procurement, making use of its scale and industry expertise. In this instance, the collaborative must first ensure that the supplier is happy and capable of providing bespoke, flexible and adaptable services to each member organisation. This way the aforementioned issue of “surprises” at the delivery phase can be avoided.

Technology will undoubtedly improve patient care, but it is only via access to the right level of connectivity, capacity and network resilience that tech-led solutions will be made possible. HSCN provides organisations with the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and to take steps to fulfill their digital vision. By carefully assessing the options available through early engagement with suppliers, and aligning strategic objectives with network ambitions, the HSCN has the potential to revolutionise the performance and efficiency of the industry, reaping huge benefits for patients and healthcare staff.

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