The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January 2019, identifies newly established primary care networks (PCNs) as important drivers of NHS reform. By June 2019, PCNs will bring local GP practices together into geographical networks, covering populations of between 30,000-50,0000 patients. GP practices have worked collaboratively for years, but the new GP contract, taking effect in April 2019, and the NHS Long Term Plan, have created the more formal PCN structure. According to The King’s Fund, the thinking behind PCNs is that they will allow general practices to benefit from economies of scale through increased collaboration: staff can be shared between practices, estates can be managed more efficiently, and practices will find it easier to work with the wider health system.

PCNs will be expected to provide a wide range of primary care services to deliver the NHS national service specification, and this will be a level of service beyond what individual practices can provide. These services will include access to: a pharmacist, physiotherapy, extended GP services and social prescribing link workers (non-clinical services, e.g. healthy eating advice). From April 2020, PCNs will be required to deliver services including structured medication reviews, personalised care and supporting early cancer diagnosis. By 2021 PCNs will be charged with discovering cardiovascular disease in patients and addressing health inequalities in the local population.

The funding for PCNs is in the form of a directed enhanced services (DES) payment. This payment will be worth £1.8 billion by 2023/24 and includes money to support the working of the network, and up to £891 million to support the hiring of additional staff. As part of the new GP contract, the funding from NHS England for primary care and community care will put the total increased investment into general practice at £4.5 billion by 2023. GP practices will not have to join a PCN; but if they choose not to, they will miss out on the extra funding provided by NHS England.

The creation of PCNs, while providing the foundation for a more efficient and better-integrated system of primary care, brings with it both challenges and opportunities. One particular challenge concerns how PCNs can take advantage of the efficiencies that could be realised through reform of NHS estates. Greater collaboration between GP practices raises the possibility of consolidating existing property assets to achieve efficiency savings. By grouping key services in one location, PCNs will be able to cuts costs by reducing the replication of facilities and enjoy economies of scale related to administrative savings. However, in many instances, to achieve these savings PCNs will need new purpose-built centres that can provide a host of primary and community care services. This represents an opportunity for private firms that specialise in the provision and management of healthcare facilities. As PCNs become more established, there is likely to be increased demand for facilities that can improve outcomes for patients and help the NHS work more efficiently.

PCNs require GP practices to work more closely with each other, as well as with other primary and community care providers. To ensure this communication occurs effectively, there will need to be significant investment in digital technology to facilitate record sharing and appointment booking. Also, it is a key element of the NHS Long Term Plan that, over the next five years, PCNs will have to offer patients telephone or online consultations. NHS England is also planning to use digital technologies to expand the GP workforce by offering more flexible working conditions to part-time GPs. It was announced in the Long Term Plan that NHS England would “create a new framework for digital suppliers to offer their platforms to primary care networks.” There is a clear need for increased use of enhanced digital technology to help administer the new network of PCNs, and it is a need that many firms will be looking to fulfil.

However, there are some risks to the private-sector from the reforms in the new GP contract. Under the new contract, GPs will not be allowed to advertise private healthcare services in their surgeries, nor will they be allowed to permit private GPs to offer services in their practice. These rule changes mean that practices will not be able to charge patients to see a doctor more quickly and patients will not be able to be charged for services that are offered for free on the NHS. The aim is to create a stricter divide between NHS GP care and the private sector. There is the suggestion that this is the first step by NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens towards reducing the privatisation of NHS services, as NHS bosses are concerned that privatisation undermines the ability of the NHS to provide ‘joined-up’ care.

The NHS is undergoing significant reform, and with this reform the NHS is taking on a Janus-faced approach to the private sector. In many areas, the NHS will not be able to move forward without working closely with the private sector, yet stricter rules could be on the horizon that will limit the involvement of private firms in the supply of NHS services. There is certainly room for the private sector to thrive working with, and alongside, the NHS, but there could be some twists in the road ahead.