Planning for the transition away from the legacy N3 broadband network to the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) is well under way, but for the majority of NHS organisations around the UK, the procurement processes are only now getting into full swing, with live network operations in hospitals still a little way off.
However, while HSCN is usually spoken about in terms of what it brings to clinicians, access to the new network is also vital to the many external providers of technology services into the NHS. Clevermed, an Edinburgh-based supplier of maternity and neonatal care record solutions, is among the first wave of users to go live on HSCN.
Clevermed’s mission-critical maternity patient data management system, Badgernet, is live and running in 250 hospitals around the UK, hosted by supplier Carelink in its London datacentre. But prior to switching onto HSCN with Carelink, it faced some serious problems.
Clevermed managing director Peter Badger pulled no punches when it came to the impact of the old BT-supplied N3 broadband network on his business.
“N3 was terrible, and access to bandwidth was terrible,” he told Computer Weekly. “My experience as a consumer was that I would try to get more bandwidth and it either wasn’t available, or it was so expensive that it was untenable.
“The way N3 was set up with one monopoly company managing it meant we ended up with an architecture that limited our growth and expansion because of cost and availability.
“We were running 200 hospitals off 40Mbps of bandwidth; meanwhile I have 200Mbps at home at my flat in Edinburgh. These disparities became more and more apparent,” said Badger.
More importantly, N3 was also damaging Clevermed’s reputation among its key users – frontline clinicians on maternity units helping hundreds of thousands of women through the difficult and stressful process of childbirth every year.
“We would have situations where we had to do a national system update, which involved downloading about 50MB to 10,000 workstations at once, and it would flat-line the bandwidth for three or four hours at a time, and nobody could select a patient to view until everybody had downloaded the updates.”
In that three- to four-hour window, clinicians were unable to access patient records, and in an acute obstetric scenario where, for example, this data might be vital in determining whether or not to deliver a baby via an emergency caesarean section, this could potentially lead to life-altering, or ending, decisions.
“Doctors don’t understand the technology, or how we use Carelink, and they don’t care,” said Badger. “They’re sitting there with a woman in labour and they can’t get the care records and they are livid, so they phone us and shout, ‘Peter, this is your fault’.”
In March 2018, Carelink moved Clevermed over to HSCN. Badger stuck with the same provider through the process since, despite N3’s shortcomings, the firm had always been technologically proficient and responsive to Clevermed’s needs.
“The transition was a little fiddly. We had a little downtime but nothing significant, and the end result was significantly better. We left it to Carelink to manage, and they did a very good job in doing so,” he said.
From Clevermed’s perspective, the move to HSCN has been about changing the frontline experience for its users working in acute care environments, the idea being that when caring for patients in a paperless environment, improving speed and ease of access to patient data and records helps under-pressure clinical staff do more, quicker, which ultimately has a direct impact on the experience of the patient.
This has been borne out in reality, according to Badger. “What clinicians do say is that since that date, performance and responsiveness of our system has improved, and they see the quality of patient care has improved. They don’t know it’s because of bandwidth, they just know the system they’re using to replace patient notes is quicker,” he said.
For Badger, however, HSCN is categorically not an element of a sales pitch, or a means to win more business, and nor can it ever be.
“It’s important to understand that if you said ‘HSCN’ to our users, they’d have no idea what you were talking about. They don’t understand it, all they understand is that they’re using Badgernet.
“Remember that HSCN is not us – all we can say is the NHS now has a better inter-hospital network and we use that, so you can have the benefits,” he said.