A quiet revolution

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

Dermot Ryan, programme director at NHS Digital for the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), talks to PSE about the importance of moving to the new supplier framework and outlines the next steps in the migration process.

Achieving a truly digital health and social care system is a huge challenge. It’s not only about encouraging NHS and social care organisations to embrace technology, but also ensuring we have the right infrastructure in place to put this vision into practice. This is all set against a backdrop of efficiency savings, increasing demand and cyber-attacks.

Dermot Ryan, programme director at NHS Digital for the HSCN, explained how they are facing up to this challenge: “HSCN will help health and social care providers to access and exchange information reliably, efficiently and conveniently. It replaces the 13-year-old N3 network. HSCN will allow health and social care organisations to access and share information nationally, regionally and locally in support of integrated services.

“HSCN is a standards-based network, which means health and social care organisations can buy cost-effective connectivity from a choice of suppliers within a competitive marketplace. We have around 20 suppliers who are approved or going through the HSCN compliance process and some organisations have already initiated procurements for HSCN. We expect to see the number of HSCN procurements increase rapidly over the coming months.

“We are encouraging all existing customers to procure HSCN connectivity as soon as possible and have set a deadline of September 2018 for existing customers to complete their HSCN procurements. We will provide advice and guidance to organisations looking to manage their own procurement and will manage a series of aggregated procurements to help those that are not.”

Ryan continued: “HSCN has given us an opportunity to change how network services are delivered. Instead of one contract with one supplier, we have created a vibrant marketplace with multiple suppliers, which local organisations can choose from to best suit their needs. This will help drive down costs, increase innovation, improve access and help information to be shared, regardless of location or network supplier.” 

Network technology has improved over the years, and the needs of organisations and patients using healthcare services has evolved. Patients expect services to be tailored to their needs and for the different parts of the health and care system to be joined up. HSCN makes this possible by ensuring health and care workers are able to access and share information effectively and conveniently over the network. 

“We want to provide organisations with choice and to help them exercise that choice.  For example, a group of local organisations already working together in a sustainability and transformation partnership can collaborate to buy a shared place-based HSCN network that fits their collective needs,” Ryan said. “Alternatively, some organisations may wish to aggregate their network requirements into a larger procurement to help them reduce costs. Others may be happy to procure services alone, and have the in-house expertise to manage this. HSCN supports all these approaches.

“Our focus is not only on moving the health service onto HSCN; we are opening the market to social care organisations too. As greater integration between health and social care increasingly becomes a reality, NHS Digital is working with social care providers to ensure they have the opportunity to purchase HSCN-compliant networks.

“At NHS Digital, we want to ensure all organisations that need to access the network can do so simply and affordably. Social care organisations, for example, can connect to HSCN by obtaining compliant connectivity and completing a straightforward HSCN Connection Agreement. The Connection Agreement sets out the information governance expectations and covers each organisation, rather than each location that wants to connect. It is designed to simplify and standardise network access and allow a more proportionate approach to information governance and information sharing.”

HSCN connectivity provides both highly available and reliable private network connectivity, required for accessing and running applications and services (for example the NHS Spine) as well as internet connectivity over the same infrastructure. What’s more, the internet connectivity provided through HSCN provides enhanced protection against the increasing level of cyber threat faced by health and care providers. It does this by establishing a number of central capabilities.

Firstly, the Advanced Network Monitoring service inspects all internet traffic and blocks any known malicious content. It can also identify and block new malicious content.

Secondly, the Network Analytics Service (NAS) identifies any new or irregular behaviour on any part of HSCN. If any unusual activity is detected, NHS Digital’s Data Security Centre is alerted so they can investigate this further. The NAS service benefits from early warning information from sources such as the National Cyber Security Centre.

There are actions that organisations connecting to HSCN can take to further enhance security. “Lots of organisations currently on the network have their own internet service providers which handle their local internet traffic,” Ryan explained. “As HSCN can provide this service, we would encourage local organisations to switch these off once they are connected to HSCN. This not only will improve security, but will also save money.”

The next steps for the project team at NHS Digital include testing the HSCN solution with a series of pilots between July and September. Following this, the early adopters will be the first to connect to the live HSCN in autumn, prior to the full migration. In the meantime, it is vital that health and care organisations plan and initiate their HSCN procurement activity as soon as possible. NHS Digital had to establish firm procurement plans for all organisations in July so it can ensure everyone has access to an HSCN connectivity service as soon as possible and no later than September 2018.

HSCN establishes the foundation layer for building a truly integrated health and social care system. Opening the flood gates for further interoperability across different organisations, departments and individuals, this is a landmark in NHS technology and is one big step towards the Paperless 2020 vision.


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