The Cabinet Office's strategic and commercial advisor for the Public Services Network (PSN) has revealed to Computerworld UK that decisions about the NHS' 'N4 network', specifically around funding allocation and how it works alongside the PSN, will be made by early January.
The current N3 network was established in 2004 and provides hospitals, medical centres and GPs in England and Scotland with a range of services that are delivered via BT. However, this contract is due to expire in 2013/14 and with the emergence of the government's 'network of networks', otherwise known as the PSN, many questions have been raised about what the future holds for the NHS' N3.
At a BT roundtable on the PSN this week, Nick Roberts, IT group manager at Surrey County Council, warned central government that decisions about how N3 lines up with the PSN need to be made, otherwise adoption of PSN services could be inhibited.
"We are a product of our history, and there have been some excellent initiatives that have delivered some real benefits. N3 is an excellent example of a contract that has been around for some time, and has delivered some real benefits, value and efficiency to health," said Roberts.
"However, we need to be very careful in the coming years to tie these things together correctly. They can be a real inhibitor of PSN and it scares me slightly that there might be consideration to just replace N3 with a PSN compliant solution."
Roberts' main concern was to do with funding. He said that at the moment, because the N3 is a separate government-funded network, money is ring-fenced in the programme and discourages participation in PSNs.
He said: "The ability to collaborate between health and local authorities needs to develop. We have shared teams, shared applications, shared sites, and yet we are running separate, completely ring-fenced infrastructures. It's something we really need to sort out."
Computerworld UK approached Jon Williams, strategic and commercial advisor for the PSN Programme at the Cabinet Office, about Roberts' concerns and asked him what the future holds for N3. He confirmed that the next network, which is being dubbed as 'N4', will not be a like-for-like replacement for N3.
In the short term, Williams said, the government has been working on making the N3 network PSN compliant, so that services can become interoperable between the two current infrastructures.
"We have thought about this in detail - the roadmap for PSN and health - and we are right at the end of a piece of work on converting the current N3 into PSN compliant platforms. That's probably within weeks of being finished," he said.
"We have been through all the certifications and compliance regimes, so that will open health up to consume PSN and vice versa."
In the long-term, once the N3 contract comes to an end, the government plans to let Connecting for Health manage the services and applications that can be currently procured through N3, and let a number of service providers deliver these via PSN compliant networks.
Williams said: "N4 - although I wish it was called PSN for health - is not intended to be a like-for-like replacement of N3. Far from it.
"It's intended to provide the edge-to-edge delivery of health services, particularly where they are accessing core applications. So all of the services that people are used to today, the back-end will remain the responsibility of Connect for Health."
He added: "All of the local consumption will be procured locally. You will be to go to market and say I want a PSN network, with a health top-up. This could be done through the PSN frameworks, where it's all laid out and should be fairly straight forward, or any other local initiative.
"There will still be examples of aggregated procurement where people still want to go and do their own thing using frameworks."
Williams told Computerworld UK that the decisions about what comes after N3 need to be finalised by government in early January. He also raised the issue of funding, which is currently provided centrally by the Department of Health, and where coverage is determined by a National Allocation Algorithm.
He said: "Strategic cases - I mean I've got paperwork with me right now on these things - are currently going through central government. We need to make sure that health services are still put at the heart of this, to make sure we don't drop the ball between N3 and what comes next. This is the challenge for the next two or three months.
"I think the timing is dependent on how long it is going to take the organisations who inherit this to get their budgets agreed and documented. There will have to be a date set in the budget cycle, and we are too late for that to happen in the coming financial year."
He added: "The earliest point that you could probably make that happen is financial year 2014/15, which is fairly consistent with when the N3 contract comes to term."