The Department of Health sets out plans for “innovation networks”

Posted on June 25, 2012 by


The Department of Health has invited local NHS organisations and universities to form Academic Health Science Networks (ASHNs) and link up with local industry and charities to help foster innovation within the NHS and health-related sectors. It’s hoped these will spread best practice and innovations quickly across the country and in doing so, drive economic growth and improve patient care. The plans come out of Sir David Nicholson’s recommendations on NHS innovation made back in December. Expressions of interest are being sought (20 July deadline) and the first networks are hoped to go live in 2012/13.


The NHS is often described as a poor adopter of innovation. Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, published his recommendations aimed at improving innovation and uptake in the NHS back in December (we blogged about it here). In that report he identified Academic Health Science Centres (AHSCs) as exemplars of local partnerships. Following on from that, Sir Ian Carruthers was asked to look at how networks could be formed to accelerate the spread of innovations throughout the NHS and beyond. Sir Ian has consulted across the NHS, academia and industry to come up with a set of guidelines that will help designate these new Academic Health Science Networks (ASHNs).

What are academic health science networks?

Different organisations within the NHS that operate at a fairly local level, like social care providers, hospitals and public health teams, are being asked to join up with their local academic institutions to form a partnership, called an Academic Health Science Network (ASHN). The idea is for these to be locally owned and run, with priorities being determined by local demands. However, they’re expected to be tied into the new NHS Outcomes Framework and will be expected to achieve set goals – they’ll just have freedom on how to go about it. The government wants them to link with local partners such as businesses, and charities (they mention care-providing charities but not research charities), and incorporate them into the network. They basically want everyone who is involved in healthcare to be in the network. Academic Health Science Centres will remain and are expected to be closely linked with their AHSN.

DH are anticipating there to be about 30 ASHNs across the country.

The central aim of the networks will be to bring everyone together to form the primary channel of communication whereby best practice, new technologies and research opportunities and outcomes will be spread across diverse networks (local and national) quickly, to everyone’s benefit. It’s hoped this will lead to improved patient care and cost savings, and greater innovation and wealth creation.

Increasing research activity, coordination and  involvement appears to be a key function of the AHSNs; the guidelines specifically mention that the networks will help ensure the timely payment of patient treatment costs incurred by charities during research projects. A lack of clarity over who pays these costs can be a barrier to projects getting off the ground. We have been pushing for clarity over who covers these “Excess Treatment Costs” for some time, and the government committed to ensuring this during debate of the Health & Social Care Act 2012, so it’s good to see this here. This sits alongside the AcoRD  guidelines on research costs which AMRC has been working closely with the government to achieve. There’s also a brief mention of sharing anonymised patient data across the networks so that all parts of the patient journey are monitored to aid research and develop best practice.

The AHSN guidance says “Participation in their local AHSN will also help CCGs provide assurance that they are meeting their duty to promote innovation.” This duty was laid out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The Act also introduced a duty on CCGs to promote research and the use of research evidence. There is no mention of a role for the networks in delivering this but they may well offer valuable opportunities to champion research in CCGs.

ASHNs will have a 5 year license and agreement with the NHS Commissioning Board. They will be expected to deliver “defined tasks and outcomes for which the AHSN will receive significant annual funding from the NHS Commissioning Board, alongside local resources that the members will contribute.” The details of this funding aren’t decided yet.

What next?

This announcement by DH is preliminary guidance and a call for expressions of interest, the deadline is 20 July. There is expected to be a second guidance published in August. The first network is hoped to be up and running for 2012/13 and for all AHSNs to be have had the opportunity to be established before 31 March 2014. Medical research charities aren’t explicitly mentioned in the plans but there appears to be no reason why we wouldn’t be in the networks. AMRC will be investigating further to see how charities will be involved.

There is also a “sunset review” coming soon (it was announced in Nicholson’s report and mentioned in the AHSN announcement) to look at all the different government-sponsored organisations and structures that have been set up to promote innovation in the past ten years or so and decide their future. This is hoped to streamline what has become quite a complex and sometime disparate system and pave the way for the AHSNs.

Universities UK are holding an invitation-only roundtable in July to discuss the AHSN plans, which they expect to lead to a number of projects and strands of work, including a UUK report on health innovation towards the end of the year.

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