No hospital is an island: new models of acute collaboration in the NHS

Jacob West (national lead of the NHS England New Care Models Programme) and Nigel Edwards examine some of the new models of hospital collaboration emerging in the NHS.

Blog post

Published: 06/10/2016

Encouraged in recent years through the NHS Five Year Forward View, the Dalton and Carter reviews and now Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), hospitals are looking for creative solutions to clinical and financial challenges that they can’t solve on their own.

We recently brought together the 13 acute care collaboration vanguards, who are exploring this issue as part of the new care models programme, in a ‘community of practice’ hosted by the Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund.

These 13 are a diverse bunch at first glance. Certainly the scope of their collaboration appears different. The four emerging foundation groups, Royal Free London, Salford, Northumbria and Guy’s and St Thomas’, are looking at bringing together full hospitals. Other models focus on single service lines, like EMRAD’s radiology consortium or Moorfield’s network of eye services. But at closer inspection, it looks more like a continuum of collaboration across acute services. The hospital groups are all considering tiered membership options, in which other hospitals could gain some of the group benefits through more limited collaboration options. Meanwhile, other partnerships such asWorking Together and Developing One NHS in Dorset are specifically looking at collaborating on a defined cluster of clinical and back office services.

The potential benefits of new collaborative models include: the ability to standardise clinical and operational practice; to share resources (including clinical rotas as well as managerial talent); to invest in central functions (that single institutions might struggle to); to generate scale efficiencies (in particular in back office and clinical support functions); and to leverage brand (including to attract staff).

So what’s new about this? After all, hospitals have always found ways of working with each other in some form or another.

Three things we think.

First, the old collaborations have tended to be informal. Ties between secondary and tertiary providers, in particular, have often relied on relationships between clinicians who may have trained together. That means it can be fragile if there is a change of personnel or relationships sour. Guy’s and St Thomas’ and Dartford and Gravesham’s collaboration is looking to formalise some of these pathways, starting in paediatrics, cardiology and vascular services, where there were longstanding clinical relationships between the two trusts. The Neuro Network (which is led by The Walton Centre) is similarly looking to formalise and build on its 12 satellite neurology services in the North West.

Second, they have often been at limited scale. The Royal Free is looking to build a chain of perhaps ten to 15 hospitals. Working Together, for example, brings together seven acute hospitals in the north east. EMRAD’s seven acute trusts provide radiology services for 6.5 million people in the Midlands – that’s about 10% of the country. In many places STPs are helping galvanise discussions about acute collaboration across a geography.

Third, in the past where these collaborations have been formalised, merger or acquisition has been the prevailing option. But this may be changing. We heard from Sharon Lamb about the range of intermediate options that trusts and foundation trusts across the NHS are exploring, including:

  • Shared directors and support services: Birmingham Children’s and Women’s hospitals successfully operate a model of this kind;
  • Prime contract and contractual joint ventures: clinical services such as pathology and elective surgery may be particularly suited to this model, such as the Elective Orthopaedic Centre in south west London and north Surrey;
  • Committees in common: a model being tested in South Essex;
  • Corporate joint ventures: which have the benefit of being able to generate and retain their own funds.

Of course, structural mechanisms cannot substitute for good relationships. They can only build on them. Michael West reminded us of some of the key success factors for systems leadership of this kind, including a shared vision across organisations, long term stability and continuity, and frequent face to face contact.

So where next for this agenda? The key tasks of the new care models programme over the next year, supported by The King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust, will be three-fold.

First, codify the different collaborative models emerging from the vanguards and elsewhere.

Second, support the vanguards to deliver these models and to identify when and why these arrangements are most effective. This work will be brought together in a framework document in the next few months (as have been published for the first three types of vanguards).

Third, work with NHS Improvement, the Care Quality Commission and the other national bodies to remove barriers in the system that prevent collaborations of this kind emerging.

Suggested citation

West J and Edwards N (2016) 'No hospital is an island: new models of acute collaboration in the NHS'. Nuffield Trust comment, 6 October 2016.