The head of a leading academic health science centre has called for the partnerships’ status to be protected ahead of the publication of authorisation conditions for a new wave of academic health science networks.

In an HSJ interview, Robert Lechler, executive director of King’s Health Partners in London, said the boundary between the established centres and new networks could become “blurred” when the latter are set up later this year.

The Department of Health defines AHSCs as partnerships between trusts and universities providing “world class” research and “clinical excellence”. King’s is one of five centres already authorised, including Imperial College London and Manchester AHSCs, Cambridge University Health Partners and UCL Partners.

NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson’s innovation review of last year said the goal of networks was to improve “population health by translating research into practice and developing and implementing integrated healthcare services”. Sir David anticipated 14-18 networks across England.

The review said every NHS organisation should “aspire to be affiliated” to a network, “which would act as a gateway for organisations needing support with innovation, and provide industry with focused points of access to the NHS”.

Professor Lechler told HSJ that, in comparison, AHSCs were defined by their ability to “compete globally, with clinical strength, scale and breadth”.

The three London centres signed a concordat in December setting out how they would work together to make the capital a “global leader” in research, education and patient care.

Professor Lechler added: “An AHSC has to be high quality, across provision, education and research. I’m supportive of the network model but with the advent of integrated care the boundaries between centres and networks will be a little blurred.”

The review said the DH would publish the details of the authorisation process in March. A spokeswoman last week confirmed this would now be delayed until after the local elections on 3 May.

Professor Lechler also addressed the proposed £1.9bn merger between King’s Health Partners’ three provider organisations, Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College Hospital and South London and Maudsley foundation trusts.

“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s entirely value and mission driven. At the outset of our journey people said we should merge the acute trusts. 

“But our aim is not ‘bigger is better’, we want real integration with our university partner so we can offer our patients the very best treatment based on research evidence.

“We now want to achieve even closer integration by creating a new NHS organisation, bringing the three trusts together into one and impregnating them with the academic.”

Clinical academic groups are partnerships between academics and clinicians across all three trusts and cover 21 different specialties.

The strategic outline case for a single organisation will be presented to the five boards in the summer.