Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the huge value of PCNs has been evident in the provision of primary care at scale, using data-driven approaches to deliver better outcomes for their populations.
The next 12 months provide us with the opportunity to build on this in an exciting and innovative way. However, PCNs will need to be given the right support and opportunities to help drive system-level decision-making.
In no other sector would we set up an organisation with a large budget and workforce, delivering services for large populations with a chief officer who works just half a day a week and a part-time manager.
Primary care is an anchor in the community. PCNs have the opportunity to be integral to systems, making sure population health is understood at all levels and that resources are allocated and distributed to support the need of the communities they serve.
During the June 2021 annual NHS Confederation conference, I hosted a session on this topic with three PCN leaders: Dr Sunaina Khanna, CD of GPS Healthcare PCN in Solihull, West Midlands; Kat Dalby-Welsh, a nurse CD of Yeovil PCN in Somerset; and Sheinaz Stansfield, PCN transformation lead at Oxford Terrace and Rawling Road Medical Group in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.
We reflected on the past two years – and particularly the challenges of Covid-19 – and agreed that the vision for PCNs has become much wider than it was at the start.
The pandemic has accelerated relationship and trust-building and, while it may have exacerbated inequalities, in primary care we have seen a galvanised sense of purpose. PCNs now have a real opportunity to think proactively about their whole population’s health, rather than just being reactive.
For many, PCNs came along at just the right time as the challenges in primary care were growing more pronounced and they have been invaluable during the Covid-19 crisis, allowing practices and others at neighbourhood level to work together, increasing their collective capacity, and have worked deftly to deploy the new workforce roles.
These benefits and the confidence in PCNs are now vital as we begin to look beyond Covid-19.
Over the next year and beyond, PCNs are keen to build on new ways of working and delivering care differently to meet needs rather than just manage them. Their focus will be on continuing to make connections, using data to take a true population health approach and harnessing the new skills in their workforce to ensure that patients get the most appropriate response to their need.
According to Dr Khanna, if we are going to build on what we have done during the pandemic, we have got to be brave and courageous in pushing ahead with new relationships and collaborative working to build new pathways of care for the patients we serve.
Yet to turn this into a reality we will need more time, sufficient funding and proper support for PCN management.
Ruth Rankine is director of the networks for PCNs and Primary Care Federations at the NHS Confederation