PCNs set to play a key role in helping to tackle health inequalities in Integrated Care SystemsPCNs set to play a key role in helping to tackle health inequalities in Integrated Care Systems
 
Given the current focus on elective recovery and primary care access, it might seem like an unwelcome distraction to talk about the role of primary care networks (PCNs) in tackling the root causes of physical and mental ill health.
 
However, our experience of COVID-19 has shone a light on the health inequalities in the populations PCNs serve. Tackling this is vital to improve health outcomes for individuals to bend the demand curve for health and care. This is more important now given the backlog of work that has arisen in primary care and the impact of elective procedures being postponed.
 
This year will be key for advancing the work of PCNs. The Fuller Review, will set out the next steps for how the organisations can work with ICSs. The review is seeking to identify the key priorities for a more integrated and effective primary care sector with a focus on self-care and management; the management of multi-morbidity and anticipatory care.
 
The review will consider the digital enablers and data required to support population health management and risk stratification, as well as the workforce required and new ways of working to support delivery.
 
This review combined with the Health and Social Care Select Committee inquiry into primary care which will investigate whether the development of PCNs has improved the delivery of proactive, personalised, coordinated and integrated care, will be fundamental to underlining the impact that the networks can have.
 
PCNs must be at the heart of transformation to help address challenges
We have already seen PCNs bring in additional staff which has led to a broader mix of expertise. Social prescribers and health and wellbeing coaches are good examples of this and many PCNs are working closely with their local authority counterparts to address inequalities and improve outcomes.
 
ICSs will be using national datasets to monitor performance and outcomes and the question for them is how they will use this, and other data, to look at the wider aspects of health and care with a view to prevention and intervention in their communities.  
 
It is inevitable that some ICSs will be ahead of their peers and will have developed their approach to population health management and the operational planning guidance for the coming year continues to emphasise this as priority to prevent ill health and address health inequalities. ICSs are asked to use data driven redesign to improve access and health equity for underserved communities.
 
As PCNs develop they will be able to support the transformation of primary care and help to address the challenges that arise from a delivery model characterised in the main by multiple, often small, organisations, whilst retaining the benefits of this approach.
These transformational conversations need to happen with patients and communities and national imperatives must not detract from primary care leadership of change at neighbourhood level.
 
The Health and Social Care Select Committee inquiry into primary care has been billed by the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt as one of its most important inquiries in 2022. One of the questions the committee will ask is ‘Has the development of PCNs improved the delivery of proactive, personalised, coordinated and integrated care?’
 
I would suggest it is the committee’s most important inquiry this year and its conclusions, along with the Fuller Review, will help to shape the direction of primary care for the future and ensure that it is the bedrock of every Integrated Care System.

Given the current focus on elective recovery and primary care access, it might seem like an unwelcome distraction to talk about the role of primary care networks (PCNs) in tackling the root causes of physical and mental ill health. However, our experience of COVID-19 has shone a light on the health inequalities in the populations PCNs serve. Tackling this is vital to improve health outcomes for individuals to bend the demand curve for health and care. 
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