Top tips for growing a thriving primary care network

31 January 2019

By Helen Northall

The NHS’s 10-year plan may be billed as long term, but policy makers expect general practices to leap into action to form primary care networks (PCNs). According to the NHS Long Term Plan, practices have until July to get into groups. 

Ultimately GPs might well welcome the voice that the networks will give general practice and the status they gain as the building blocks for integrated care systems. Those systems, after all, appear set to be the geographical footprint for key decision making  in the near future.

However, currently just 30% of practices are members of PCNs – and many existing networks don’t meet the exact criteria set out for them in the ten year plan, either because they’re bigger than the 30,000-50,000 specified in the plan or because they fail to share neat boundaries with other community services or with social care.

For most practices therefore, even those already in some sort of PCN arrangement, pause for thought would be useful. Time may be a luxury the plan does not afford them but they should take a deep breath and think clearly about how they will set about building and nurturing new relationships.

With practice incomes likely to be increasingly reliant on contracts secured by their PCNs, there is a financial incentive for making them work – but also for getting them right first time.

Our work helping to join up primary care services suggests ten things GPs and existing PCNs should do as they respond to the government’s urgent call to arms.

  1. Most importantly (and despite the need for speed), take the time to agree a shared vision that  practices – and other network partners – feel they can both sign up to and help deliver.
  2. Don’t focus too much on form or structure at the start. The form, for example a limited company – should follow the vision or goals and enable the network to achieve its agreed purpose. 
  3. Spend time on relationships between member organisations and work on building trust.
  4. Communicate clearly so that everyone is signed up to the same vision and purpose and understands what is being done to enable the network to deliver them.
  5. Start small: identify and work on a few priorities – ones agreed by practice members – so the benefit can be seen quickly.
  6. Given their fundamental roles as both forces for integration and in generating practice income, it’s worthwhile holding regular review meetings. They will give you space to identify and discuss which issues might block progress and to agree how to overcome them.
  7. Advertise the network’s successes and communicate them to members to establish buy-in and keep momentum.
  8. Don’t stand still: having moved swiftly to get started, your plans will need to evolve in response to new income opportunities as well as to changing local and national priorities. However, in considering new activities or contracts, ensure they are financially beneficial to the network and its members.
  9. Support your practices: explore with them the options for benefits such as shared staff, supporting challenged practices and delivering services together.
  10.  Look at building and maintaining longer term and wider relationships – ask how the network will work with other PCNs, local services and the community.

Establishing or redesigning PCNs will enable primary care leaders to emerge. Through working together they can give a stronger voice for primary care in integrated care systems and set a strong path for primary care to be the focus of health services for years to come.

In other words, it’s worth the effort to get them right.

Helen Northall is chief executive of PCC

Resources Primary/Community Services

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