'As we move into an era of reconfiguration, effective networking will be crucial to enable patients to receive the best care'

Picture of Edna Robinson

People usually think of networking as a cuddly process to help soften the harsh realities of the business process world we live in. Yet more and more, networks are being seen as a legitimate means of delivering services, disseminating products and services and cascading difficult and complex communication.

As more networks are used as vehicles of important services such as cancer and coronary heart disease, how they are regulated and standardised becomes an important issue. Accreditation? Regulation? The main lesson we have learnt is that networks must be carefully coordinated and managed. Often set up by enthusiasts, unless there are good back-office systems, the energy fails.

Since NHS Networks started just over a year ago, we have been fascinated to see how people have approached us to help them network in all kinds of ways. There have been the networks that simply wanted to come on our register, to have a page and a place to describe what they are and where interested people might find them. Examples are the Pan Thames Paediatric Intensive Care Unit Consortium, the North West London Provision Work Stream (it supports primary care trust provider services in preparing for the future) or the County Durham and Darlington Diabetes Network (its aim is to set the strategic direction for diabetes services across the area).

There have been policy people from various parts of the Department of Health coming to us for help to make contact with key groups in the NHS - in other words, to network outside their normal spheres. One example is those putting together the recently published commissioning framework, who worked informally with the PCTs working with foundation trusts network as they developed the framework. Another is the Our Health, Our Care, Our Say team, who asked NHS Networks to gather examples of access to use in the white paper.

Social enterprise
There have been people who wanted to create new networks and wanted some help. In some cases we have been able to set up those networks from scratch. Examples include the social enterprise network, which is helping to bring together people interested in social enterprise as healthcare provider, and the local hospitals network. In other cases, we have simply been able to offer support to groups who have formed a network and need networking tools, such as a web space or a forum. Examples include the popular community matrons network and the allied health professional and healthcare scientist network.

Still other people have come to us with examples of networking which they want to share more widely; the National Diabetes Support Team's document on running clinical networks has been one of our top web downloads for weeks. All these examples demonstrate an increasing interest in networking as a business tool, against the background of an NHS shifting in form, with boundaries blurring and reforming. It is clear that as we move into an era of reconfiguration, effective networking will be crucial to enable patients to receive the best care.

We hope to continue developing the support to networks that we have begun and will be bringing you examples of good management from our website, events and member networks.

Edna Robinson is national lead of NHS Networks and chief executive of Trafford Healthcare trust