PCN clinical director and primary care IT specialist Dr Neil Paul offers tips on developing an IT strategy for your network
As primary care contracts and targets are increasingly directed through PCNs, it makes sense for your network to have an overall IT strategy.
IT is critical to everything we do – for the planning, delivering, monitoring and evaluation of care as well as for claiming income. In addition, it seems likely that PCNs will be given notional budgets for IT and an approved framework and software, so it is important for PCNs to be ahead of the game and know what IT solutions they want.
Here are my tips for developing a strategy to identify and deliver the best IT solutions for your PCN.
Take stock of your hardware
First, ask yourself:
• What hardware do you have?
• How old is it and what specification?
• When is it due for replacement?
• Do you have significant variation in the standard of hardware in teams?
You may find there is a need to level up practices’ hardware, which means starting conversations with your members about helping the worst off.
Explore telecoms options
If, like us, your infrastructure is provided by the local commissioning support unit (CSU) you will benefit from professionalism and resources, but this also restricts choice and can disable large numbers of practices if a system fails.
Where possible you may want to look at alternative suppliers, such as X-on, to give you more choice of services and flexibility – for example, additional support during extended hours.
Align software where possible
It is important to review your clinical system software too. Are you all on the same systems and if not, why not? A historical legacy or attachment to a particular vendor is understandable, but there can be advantages to moving to one supplier.
Doing this at PCN level can support collaboration while still giving practices some control. It also makes sense for practices to use the same add-ons, such as dictation software.
For example, most practices in our GP federation, which covers three PCNs, now use Lexacom’s digital dictation transcription software – this gave a discount, enabled staff to use a familiar system across different practices and made training and support easier.
Share your IT skills
Look at your people and do a stock-take of skills. Each practice will usually have one or two staff members with efficient approaches to automating appointments, searches or protocols.
For example, one of our pharmacists created an EMIS protocol to automate generation of controlled drug prescriptions for palliative care patients, which other practices across the PCN have found invaluable. Consider organising practice visits or exchanges to share processes like these.
Look at harmonising processes for administrative work such as coding of incoming letters and summarising notes. Having consistent coding across a PCN will help quality of care and make population health management analysis more reliable. Other processes such as information governance, document shredding and IT training could also be standardised.
Make use of business intelligence tools
There are a number of business intelligence tools that practices can use to analyse partners’ activity and quality of care, such as Apollo or Graphnet Health for patient data and the pharmaceutical focused tools AnalyseRx and Eclipse.
Draw up a data sharing agreement
A robust data-sharing agreement will save a lot of time. Know what your members are comfortable sharing at a practice, PCN and wider level and write that up. Then you don’t need to create lots of paperwork each time you test a new piece of software or do a cross-practice search or audit.
Hire dedicated IT support
Hiring an IT trainer for the PCN can be a cost-effective way to level up skills and knowledge across practices. My PCN did this for three months and it really improved IT knowledge among the reception and administrative staff as well as clinicians, in particular where employees had missed original training on software, or did not know about new functionality. The IT role could also include reviewing each practice’s IT disaster recovery plans to create one central plan and share resources.
Dr Neil Paul is a GP partner in Cheshire and CD of Sandbach, Middlewich, Alsager, Scholar Green and Haslington (SMASH) PCN
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