An essential part of the NHS Long Term Plan that was published in January 2019 was the formation of Primary Care Networks (PCNs). It has been rapidly introduced across England, and effective July 2019 the majority of General Practitioner (GP) practices had already come together in over 1,300 PCNs.
However despite the fact that the implementation of PCNs are already well underway, many people are still relatively uncertain about what they actually are, and the role that they play. That is because in all fairness the role of PCNs is in the midst of being implemented.
“What are Primary Care Networks?”
For quite some time GP practices have worked together in various ways, such as by forming federations, partnerships, or clusters of their own. The formation of Primary Care Networks is similar to that, and has already brought neighboring GP practices together.
The scale of each Primary Care Network is intended to be small enough to provide personal care to patients. At the same time it is meant to be large enough to allow GP practices to collaborate more effectively with other practices and healthcare professionals within their network.
The practices that join a PCN will be eligible for additional funding, which is part of what makes it so appealing to them. Most of the new money allocated to the NHS is set to be channeled to PCNs.
Each PCN will typically cover a geographically area of 30,000 to 50,000 patients. Although the boundaries of most networks are geographically-based, there are some exceptions, especially in cases where there were already fully-functioning networks.
“What Will They Actually Do?”
Right now the role of PCNs is to act as a network of GP practices – however that is really just its starting point. Based on the NHS Long Term Plan its role will continue to expand over the next few years, as it is a key vehicle to deliver on many of the commitments in the plan.
To be more specific, the PCNs will enable the delivery of a wider range of medical services to patients. It will do this by expanding its membership to include not only normal GP practices, but also pharmacists, dental providers, optometrists, social care providers, community services, physiotherapists, and more.
Typically conventional GP practices would not be able to provide such services due to economies of scale. However under a PCN there would be greater demand to include them and due to the number of patients.
As a wider range of healthcare professionals are included in PCNs it will mean that patients will have better access to primary care that is close to their home. Each PCN will be required to deliver on seven specifications:
- Structured medication reviews
- Anticipatory care
- Personalized care
- Early cancer diagnosis
- Enhanced health in care homes
- Cardiovascular disease case-finding
- Local government action to tackle inequalities
The first five specifications are only set to be delivered in 2020, while the remaining two are scheduled for 2021. Effectively by the time PCNs are fully implemented, they should integrate a full range of healthcare services and community teams to cover all seven specifications.
“How Do Primary Care Networks Benefit Patients?”
Knowing what PCNs are and the role they play is one thing – but at the end of the day the million dollar question is how they’ll actually benefit patients. The most significant change from the status quo is a shift from reactive to proactive healthcare.
Some of the main benefits that PCNs should offer patients are:
- Access to a wider range of healthcare services that are closer to their homes.
- Integrating normal healthcare services with other related community services.
- Support for more complex conditions that may require coordinate across various healthcare services.
In short patients will far greater access to more personalized care within their local area. That will ensure that they don’t have to travel too far, or end up on lengthy waiting lists in order to obtain the care that they require.
As far as healthcare providers are concerned PCNs will bring numerous benefits to the table too, including increased opportunities, greater stability, more funding, and better information-sharing.
It should be noted that many of the PCN and NHS Long Term Plan deliverables are only slated to be fully implemented in 2021. However over the next few years PCNs should start to gradually see more and more services integrated under them as money is invested to encourage their growth.
In time PCNs should be able to fully cater to the health and wellbeing of all the population within their region. On top of that they will be able to specifically target groups that require more proactive care, and help to meet their needs better. Suffice to say it perfectly encapsulates the NHS’ goal of helping communities to live well.