Following the publication of Innovation Health and Wealth in December 2011 the Department of Health agreed to work with the NHS, universities and industry to designate Academic Health Science Networks (AHSN). The first networks are to go live in 2012/13. The ambition is that all NHS organisations will have the opportunity to be part of an AHSN by the end of March 2014.

The Department of Health has recently published guidance on the designation process. In an effort to build on the enthusiasm for the process the Department of Health is asking for expressions of interest for local AHSNs by 20 July 2012. The key elements of this guidance are set out below.

What are AHSNs?

AHSNs are locally owned and run partnership organisations designed to help transform health outcomes and the delivery of healthcare in England. This is to be achieved by bringing together local NHS, higher education institutions and other stakeholders in the healthcare industry to focus on the identification, adoption and spread of innovative healthcare across a network.

The work of AHSNs is to be supported by a five-year licence and funding arrangement for delivery of a range of defined functions. The licence will be both an agreement between the network partners and the NHS Commissioning Board (NCB) to work together to improve patient care and population health and also a contract to deliver defined tasks and outcomes for which the AHSN will received significant annual funding from the NCB.

Key themes

  • The core purpose is to provide a systematic delivery mechanism for a collaboration of academic, health and social care bodies to identify, adopt and spread proven innovations and best practice
  • The collaboration will include organisations who are primarily focused on a defined geography including: CCGs; providers of primary, secondary community, and tertiary NHS funded services; higher educational institutions; local government; and other industry partners active in the health care sector
  • The creation of a culture of learning and sharing based on multi-disciplinary professional and clinical leadership and engagement
  • Preventing duplication through sharing
  • Supporting knowledge exchange networks to provide for rapid evaluation and early adoption of new innovations under tight surveillance and monitoring
  • Supporting industry research
  • Applying improvement science and the Change Model being developed by the NHS Commissioning Board
  • Supporting the development, testing and commercialisation of ideas that have the potential to become best practice
  • Complimenting the roles of present and future Academic Health Science Centres (AHSCs)
  • To realise the national potential of AHSNs by creating a "network of networks" to spread innovation across the country and
  • Contributing to the delivery of the NHS Outcomes Framework and the NHS Mandate.

Core functions

AHSNs will have six core functions:

  • Research participation
  • Translating research and learning into practice
  • Education and training
  • Service improvement
  • Information and
  • Wealth creation.

Criteria for participation and applications

Participation in the AHSN is voluntary and is open to CCGs, NHS funded service providers, higher education institutions engaged in health and care, and other organisations within the industry. Applications for designations will take the form of a prospectus which will include aspects such as:

  • the overall vision of the AHSN, the strategic goals and challenges to address
  • the names and geographical footprint of the partners
  • the mechanisms, levers and approach the AHSN will use
  • governance, reporting and leadership models
  • how they will work with their Local Education and Training Boards
  • a statement covering the measurable progress
  • a draft business plan setting out the ambitions for the next 5 years and
  • how the partners will work together in a collaborative manner.

The application will be assessed by a panel arranged by the NCB. The panel will make recommendations to the NCB on whether to approve the application, approve it with conditions, or defer it.

What happens next?

Local NHS organisations are being asked to work together and contact potential partners with a view to applying for AHSN designation. Initial expressions of interest in making an AHSN application in the autumn 2012 should be submitted to ihw-ahsn@dh.gsi.gov.uk by 20 July 2012.

Before making an expression of interest, discussions should be held with the SHA and other potential partners to avoid conflict with others in the same geographical area. An AHSN is anticipated to cover a population of around 3 to 5 million people.

The expression of interest should be no more than 2 sides of A4 and set out the overall vision, goals, proposed footprint, membership and affiliated partners.

How we can help you

The AHSN application must set out the membership and participation model for the network and AHSNs are encouraged to establish themselves as incorporated bodies with a clear public interest.  Applicants should also be clear about the financial and legal decisions that are required to underpin the creation of the AHSN.

Bevan Brittan LLP can advise you on the legal issues that you will encounter in setting up your AHSN including:

  • the suitability of the different social enterprise models available
  • the governance arrangements that can best support the success of the AHSN
  • financial and other legal arrangements to support the operation of the AHSN and the delivery of initiatives through the AHSN.. 

Our advice draws on our experience of advising on the establishment of social enterprises in the health and other sectors and on research and development.

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