In just two years, NHS Networks has established itself as a generator of co-operation and innovation. Edna Robinson and Sue Cavill report

Working through a 100-strong group of associates, who help with anything from co-ordinating a network to staffing a stand at a conference, NHS Networks has attracted hours of input from gifted people at all levels of the NHS.

It was established in 2005 after the need to connect the health system had been demonstrated during the years of the National Primary and Care Trust Development Programme. .

In the first news story on the NHS Networks website, Trafford Healthcare trust chief executive and NHS Networks national lead Edna Robinson said: 'NHS Networks is not an institution. It is a means to put you in touch with agencies and people who run networks and promote good practice. We are keen to connect clinicians, managers and service users in a range of ways.'

Connecting at the centre

NHS Networks has enabled people at the centre to connect and to formulate policy. It works with national clinical directors, professional executive committee chairs and new clinical leaders on practice-based commissioning.

The hot issues relate to ensuring safety in clinical networks, and its work programme for the next 12 months. Working with primary care czar David Colin-Thome and cancer czar Professor Mike Richards it is looking at standardisation of clinical governance in clinical networks.

NHS Networks runs networks for PCT professional executive committee chairs and those who commission from foundation trusts. DoH representatives often attend network meetings to share policy thinking and discuss implementation.

PEC chair Dr Bill Forsyth said: 'The PEC chair network meetings are invaluable in terms of sharing experiences, learning new approaches, peer support and the opportunity to influence policy.'

NHS Networks has supported the development of a national teaching PCTs network, working to broker funding and shepherd PCTs through the complexities of reconfiguration.

Growing community

The website now averages more than 3,000 visitors a day, seven days a week, and the weekly electronic newsletter is distributed to 10,000 people. The register of networks has grown to more than 350, and features everything from a national network on social enterprise, to themed local clinical networks and a lean thinking network.

Many of them have created web spaces on the NHS Networks website. 'NHS Networks brings together, virtually and actually, people in lead roles who may not otherwise get to meet - enabling challenge, debate, and sharing of leading-edge thinking,' said Gail Richards, chief executive of Oldham PCT.

The online polls, forums and discussions show that NHS Networks is in a unique position to connect to concerns and interests in health and social care. The social enterprise network resulted from an initial meeting of people interested in social enterprises in healthcare, but unsure how to take their interest forward.

The resulting network has a forged a close working relationship with the Social Enterprise Unit, and helps social enterprises access and share information. It organised a national conference last October,.at which health secretary Patricia Hewitt announced funding for pathfinder social enterprises.

The national clinical directors are disseminating their messages about future reconfigurations. In March Ms Hewitt launched the local hospitals network, which is recruiting a lead person from each SHA to connect issues of concern.

Service delivery

NHS Networks works with the Service Delivery Organisation (SDO) a DoH-funded research body and other academic bodies to explore what makes an effective network. We have published A suggested framework for the self-assurance of service delivery networks and are developing a toolkit for networks.

In a recent questionnaire network users said NHS Networks helped with information and support, saving time and money. 'Prior to the NHS Networks website, I used to spend hours trying to identify local leads in other non-critical care networks - this has been a godsend,' said Sussex Critical Care Network manager Carry de Ridder.

With a dedicated team of five people, backed by associates and others with an interest in networking, NHS Networks has achieved a huge amount in two years. The hope is that it will be able to continue to offer the widely-valued support that has become known and appreciated for.

Edna Robinson is national lead NHS Networks and chief executive for Trafford Healthcare trust. Sue Cavill is business director for NHS Networks