Georgina Owen looks at how the two new important forums, health and wellbeing boards and academic health science networks, will help each other

Collaboration between organisations is a fundamental principle of the health and social care reforms that will be operational from next month. 

Yet, until now, there has been very little debate about how the two new key collaborative forums, health and wellbeing boards and academic health science networks, will relate to each other, and importantly how they might support each other to deliver their agendas.

This may be because the two have grown out of different agendas: the Health and Social Care Act for the boards, and the Department of Health’s Innovation, Health and Wealth for the networks. 

‘The there will be three key areas where the relationship will need to be particularly strong’

While communication around health and wellbeing boards has been extensive across the health and social care sector, there is relatively little knowledge of academic health science networks in local authorities, despite the fact it is envisaged that they will be a “collaboration between academia and the NHS working with industry, public health and social care partners on innovation”.

Complex collaboration

The networks will be focused on driving collaboration regionally across health providers to achieve the aim of improving “patient and population health outcomes by translating research into practice and developing and implementing integrated healthcare systems”.

Health and wellbeing boards were conceived initially as being a local collaboration of commissioners to lead on local health improvement and prevention activity in their area through integrated care. 

However, as the boards have evolved, there is an increasing number of providers involved, such as acute trusts, reflecting the King’s Fund’s early concern that delivering integrated care at the scale and pace demanded requires the involvement of both commissioners and providers.

Similarly, it is not clear that in order to be successful networks, provider and commissioning plans need to be aligned.

The relationship between the new organisations is likely to be complex, but there will be three key areas where the relationship will need to be particularly strong to ensure that the two entities help each other to achieve their agendas.

Shared change of care

Effective boards will be the engine to drive changes to the size, shape and nature of health and social care services across their local area to achieve service and financial sustainability.

Academic health science networks need to understand the individual board’s vision for changing the shape of health and social care services in their region. 

They will need to help health and wellbeing boards drive the delivery of the required transformation consistently across all health providers to meet these visions and improve patient outcomes as best as they can through the use of network-approved innovation and best practice. 

The networks will need to be flexible and recognise that plans across boards will vary, but the underlying principles of changing the shape of health and social care will be the same.

Industry engagement

They are both interested, locally for boards and regionally for networks, in creating jobs to improve wealth and to improve people’s mental and physical health through work and the workplace. 

Local authorities, linking through to the boards, will be aiming to attract new companies locally and help existing local companies to succeed and grow. 

‘Medical technology is a major opportunity to work together to achieve a common objective’

This will become even more important to local authorities with the business rates retention scheme from April. Health science networks, by having a regional presence (and because of their promise to make working with the NHS easier), will be able to engage more effectively with sectors of industry, including at an international level. 

This engagement should be particularly effective with companies involved in research and developing innovative products − including pharmaceuticals, medical technologies and devices. 

The small or medium-sized nature of many medical technology and devices companies means the networks have a particularly important role in helping companies overcome barriers to entry and delivery in health, and succeed where they should do. This is a major opportunity for the new organisations to work together to achieve a common objective.

Improving public health

In a survey of more than half of health and wellbeing boards in November 2012, most had health improvement and/or public health, or some aspect of these, as their main priority.

One of the aims of the networks is to improve patient outcomes as priorities, which they will do by providing health services that are of a more consistent standard across the region. 

‘There will be lessons learnt that they can share about overcoming different languages and cultures’

In addition, there are advantages to a regional drive on health improvement, such as getting consistent measures across the region for key health indicators − for example, obesity and physical activity.

It may also be easier to engage with external partners at a regional level to help drive health improvement, and to deliver population-level interventions. Both boards and networks will need to engage closely with the regional offices of Public Health England in their plans. 

Both will also need to create an effective working environment for collaboration − creating ownership among all organisations involved while making delivery of transformation timely and appropriate.

It will not be easy to achieve but there will be lessons learnt that they can share about overcoming different languages and cultures. It is crucial that both types of collaboration do succeed and the new organisations need to align their plans to make sure this is the case.

Georgina Owen is principal consultant at Finnamore