The first NHS Financial Shared Services Centre (SSC) went live on 1 April, marking a milestone in the provision of key business support services to NHS organisations using the very latest web-based technology.

West Yorkshire SSC, based near Leeds, went "live" with all nine of its first wave Trusts on 1 April 2003. The South West SSC, based in Bristol, also went live, running a number of joint financial processes with the West Yorkshire SSC – it will go live with its first wave of three Trusts on 1 May.

The Shared Services model is intended to deliver economies of scale, standardise NHS business transactions and processes and enable key support services to be delivered more efficiently from a small number of SSCs. The central idea, proven in other industries, is to reduce the costly fragmented financial processes and systems traditionally found by different NHS and replace them with more efficient generic processes and systems.

Finance will provide the test bed for the wider introduction of the Shared Services model across the NHS across a range of areas. If the initial pilots prove successful the vision of the National Shared Services Initiative is that by 2010 a small number of SSCs will be delivering all routine transactional processing in the areas of Finance, HR, payroll, and procurement on behalf of the entire NHS.

David Thorpe, managing director of West Yorkshire SSC, told E-Health Insider, “This is a journey that commenced two years ago and has involved investment and gearing up structures, introducing new systems and training staff to go live.”

Three separate teams from the local trusts, the shared services centre project team and national shared team have all worked together to introduce shared financial services, with extensive user acceptance testing and training over the past couple of months. Trial scripts with real data were used to fully test the system before it went live.

Steve Coxon, managing director of South West SSC explained that the concept of shared services depended on first eliminating the different routines and processes previously used in individual trusts so that standard systems could then be introduced. “A lot of work has gone into getting processes and routines standardised and generic so they can then be automated.”

“In terms of the NHS modernisation programme it is recognised that IT must be at the forefront. It is the key enabler for us,” said Mr Thorpe. The National Shared Services Initiative estimates that savings of £180m a year, resources that can be reinvested in direct patient care, can be achieved if shared financial services are introduced nationally.

The SSCs and trusts will all use the latest web-based Oracle 11i software, a huge technological leap forward for many of the trusts involved. The Oracle system will provide finance staff with the ability to carry out financial transactions and processes online, such as invoices and purchase orders.

“A binding service level agreement between ourselves and each trust specifies the level of work we will do and also specifies what they need to do in return,” explained Mr Coxon.

The two initial Finance SSCs are designed to be highly scalable to enable further trusts to join the Shared Financial Services. A second wave of trusts is due to go live in June in the South West and July in West Yorkshire. In total some 46 trusts are due to take part in the two initial pilots.

By the end of the year a national evaluation of Shared Financial Services is due to be completed and a decision taken nationally on whether to roll the model out across the entire NHS.