Clinical networks are likely to emerge in three main forms and work under a new operating model that is being developed, NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh has revealed.

Sir Bruce has asked NHS East Midlands medical director Kathy McClean to lead a group discussing the future of the networks. Dr McLean also led the clinical advice and leadership strand on the NHS Future Forum.

The move follows the government’s pledge in its response to the NHS Future Forum report to give networks - which advise on the case of particular conditions - a stronger role in commissioning, supporting the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups.

Sir Bruce said at yesterday’s NHS Improvement conference in London that there were likely to be three main types of networks:

  • Very specialist, eg neonatal intensive care
  • Specialist but more generic, eg cancer
  • Higher level generic, eg acute care

He told HSJ today there could be one operating model for all three networks, or each could have its own model, setting out governance arrangements and relationships with bodies such as clinical commissioning groups and clinical senates.

He said: “When we’re redesigning the system, we’re looking at the operating model for clusters and senates. It’s of great importance to make sure they [the operating models] all sync.”

He added: “Networks are a great opportunity to bring providers, commissioners and experts all into the same place to ensure that the right patients get the right treatment in the right place.”

However, he said networks must provide a useful function, either improving the quality of care for patients or helping to make commissioning groups more effective.

The group will look at the set up of current networks. Sir Bruce said he was “keen to explore” how to measure whether existing networks affected patient outcomes. “My gut instinct is that some of them do  and some of them don’t,” he said.

He was “completely agnostic” as to how many networks there should be.

The group has no set deadline by which to report back but it is hoped they will be in a position to share early thoughts internally by the end of July. Sir Bruce said he hoped to have a “pretty clear idea” of the way forward by the time the NHS Commissioning Board is established in shadow form in October.