Sometimes we can get complacent about living in the modern age. Compared to even just fifty years ago in the UK, modern medicine has slashed child mortality rates, lengthened average lifespans and come up with more sophisticated, less invasive treatments for serious ailments from cancer to heart disease. New innovations arrive almost every day. We’re healthier and heartier than ever before.

But that level of healthcare doesn’t come for free. An ageing population and escalating treatment expectations are putting huge pressure on the resources of an NHS that was designed to cope with a much smaller workload. The NHS is always there for us – but it’s struggling to cope. There are more of us than there once were, and we’re asking more of the health service than we used to. As wonderful as it is, if we don’t find a more efficient way to service the nation’s health needs, the pressure is only going to keep building and have a negative impact on individual patient outcomes.

One of the key steps that the UK government has taken to address these healthcare challenges is the move to a ‘Cloud First’ policy of new technology procurement. The aspiration to create a truly digital NHS should be close to reality, as the health service reaches its deadline to become paperless by the end of the year. Nevertheless, it’s a steep challenge, and one that many hospitals are not ready to take on in reality. They need help.

Building a connected health service

The cloud has been transformational in the world of business, and there is no doubt that it can deliver smarter, more agile and more efficient services for patients – all at a much more affordable cost compared to legacy systems. This has been enabled by the growth of major cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure, which provide the enhanced scale and improved security so essential to such large-scale projects.

Naturally, these services demand high-performance, resilient and secure connectivity to link hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies to cloud services. Introduced during 2006 and 2007, The NHS’s old N3 network is no longer fit for the range of data-intensive, cloud-delivered services on which tomorrow’s healthcare services will rely. This is why the government has developed the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), a standards-based ‘network of networks’ that will, by March 2019, connect healthcare providers and premises across the country.

The roll-out of HSCN is the final, crucial piece in the jigsaw of healthcare IT. It enables trusts to access new digital healthcare services – including electronic patient records and NHS Digital’s online tools – and collaborate effectively with other organisations in their region. It also ensures safe, reliable and efficient information sharing between them.

HSCN will bring untold benefits to health and social care providers and those who rely on them. These range from improving the way organisations share critical data that improves our understanding and treatment of medical conditions, to enabling high-quality video for remote consultations, to accessing new healthcare applications and services that will directly benefit patients.

Preparing for HSCN

However, such a wide-ranging migration project presents a major logistical challenge for organisations that need to upgrade their old N3 connections to HSCN via their existing infrastructures. Fortunately, the advent of the new national network is also an ideal opportunity for organisations to review their entire network strategy, and to strengthen their links with other partner organisations.

Whether they decide to undertake a full-scale review will depend on several factors, including whether the organisation has a single site that they want to connect to HSCN, or whether they will need to link multiple premises via a triangulated connection, or through a hub and spoke model. Whichever way they choose to proceed, it is vital that every organisation has a clearly mapped and phased strategy for migration to the new national network.

Organisations should first ensure that they underpin HSCN with robust and reliable networks of their own. Local and wide area networks (WAN) should be tested and, where necessary, upgraded to ensure that each site has the bandwidth, mobile failover and proactive network monitoring to ensure full peace of mind for network managers, medical professionals and patients themselves. This should include Wi-Fi provision, enabling different users to access their network in different ways, creating an ‘always-connected’ environment.

Next, organisations should look at hosted voice platforms that provide clarity, flexibility and long-term cost savings; ensure they have direct, uncontended and secure access to hosted platforms; and enable reliable data and application services that enable employees to work smart wherever they are. The final phase should focus on optimising network performance. Software defined WAN, for example, delivers the best possible levels of control, resilience and security, all configured via the cloud.

Organisations should also work towards providing HSCN connectivity to the public cloud, enabling each site and employee to securely access public cloud providers such as AWS or Microsoft Azure, and thus taking advantage of the associated cost savings and access to a range of critical care data and applications. Organisations should also consider the mobility services they provide, so their workforce can access these systems wherever they are.

There are several ways for health and social care organisations to procure the technology and consultancy they need to deliver HSCN-ready networks. Those that wish to run their own procurement can go down the self-service route, for example.

Organisations that need to share information or otherwise collaborate with partners will benefit from taking a collaborative or aggregated approach. This has the advantage of pooling limited resources to achieve much greater economies of scale compared to acting alone.

We have the tools to make digital transformation of the NHS a reality; to enable trusts and surgeries to share their data; to keep centralised patient history records; to unify the NHS’s myriad systems into a single cloud system; to make life easier for countless doctors, nurses and support staff up and down the country; and, most importantly, to improve outcomes for patients. But first we have to build the networks that will make it possible: the invisible threads that will support a healthier future for the UK.

Eddie Ginja is head of public sector at KCOM