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Clinical networks will not be 'thrown out with the bathwater'

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Plans have been announced for the creation of national clinical networks covering four condition areas.

The networks will be centrally-funded and hosted by the new NHS Commissioning Board, which is taking over responsibility for the day-to-day running of much of the health service from the Department of Health.

They will be known as strategic clinical networks and are intended to build on the success of current NHS networks at local and regional level, the most well known of which have been for cancer.

The four areas chosen by the commissioning board to be covered by the new networks are:

  • cardiovascular disease (including heart, stroke, renal and diabetes)
  • cancer
  • maternity and children
  • mental health, dementia and neurological conditions

Announcing the strategic clinical networks, the NHS Commissioning Board said they would “cover conditions or patient groups where improvements can be made through an integrated, whole system approach”.

“These networks will help local commissioners of NHS care to reduce unwarranted variation in services and encourage innovation,” the board said.

NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said retaining clinical networks after the transition to the health service’s new commissioning structure would “avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in the reforms.

He said: “We are keen to preserve things which we know have worked and worked well. There is a feeling networks have been instrumental in helping to improve care.”

The networks will exist for up to five years and will be managed by 12 locally based support teams. Those running the networks – who are currently mainly employed by primary care trusts – will work for newly created local area teams, which will operate as “hubs” for the NHS Commissioning Board.

However, the announcement does not include details of funding for running the networks.

Other types of clinical networks will have to be formed and supported by commissioners and providers independently.

In response to the announcement, Mike Hobday, director of policy and research at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Cancer networks have played a central role in driving up the quality of cancer services and ensuring that patients get the care that they deserve.

“While we’re pleased that there is greater clarity on the role they will play in the reformed NHS, further assurances are needed around their focus and function.

“Proposals suggest networks will focus on early diagnosis,” he said. “This is key in improving survival rates but it’s vital they also continue to improve cancer patients’ experience and ensure they receive co-ordinated care.”

Royal College of Midwives chief executive Cathy Warwick said the announcement was “potentially very good news for women and families and for midwifery services”.

She said: “The RCM believes that these strategic clinical networks will play a key role in driving up the quality and standard of services….[and] help to ensure the coordinated  delivery of care during a woman’s pregnancy and beyond.

“The challenge will now be to work with the NHS Commissioning Board to set up and develop these networks in a way which ensures they can make a very significant contribution to the experience of women and their families,” she added.

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