Frequently asked questions – ICSs

What is an integrated care system?

An integrated care system is an even closer collaboration with NHS organisations, in partnership with local councils and others, taking collective responsibility for managing resources, delivering NHS standards, and improving the health of the population they serve.

Local services can provide better and more joined-up care when different organisations work together in this way. For staff, improved collaboration can help to make it easier to work with colleagues from other organisations. And systems can better understand data about local people’s health, allowing them to provide care that is tailored to individual needs.

Why are integrated care systems needed?

Integrated care systems are a way for NHS organisations and councils to develop their own, locally appropriate proposals to improve health and care for residents. They work in partnership with democratically elected local councils, drawing on the expertise of frontline staff and on conversations about priorities within the communities they serve.

This collaborative approach has allowed local leaders across the country to plan around the needs of whole areas, not just those of individual organisations. They are led by well-respected figures from different parts of the NHS and local government, including chief executives of NHS trusts, accountable officers of clinical commissioning groups, local government senior leaders and clinicians.

Working together they are in a better position to deliver the NHS Long Term Plan’s aim for ‘triple integration’ of primary and specialist care, physical and mental health services, and health with social care.

What does an integrated care system mean for people who use services?

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the NHS and its partners their biggest challenge of the past 70 years. It has shown that people need support joined up across local councils, the NHS, and voluntary organisations. No hospital, GP surgery or care home could rise to the challenge alone. The pandemic has shown that a commitment to collaboration between these organisations, based on the interests of the people they serve, is the best way to improve results. Partners have shared resources and made decisions quickly to provide the care and support that local people need.

Such arrangements have bridged traditional divisions between hospitals and family doctors, between physical and mental health, and between NHS and council services. In the past, these divisions have meant that too many people experienced disjointed care. What is important now is that, as we recover from the pandemic, we capture and build on this spirit of partnership across health, care, local councils and voluntary organisations. We need services that understand our increasingly complex health and care needs and treat us individuals.

Integrated care systems will look to deliver practical changes to improve peoples’ lives. With a range of organisations and frontline professionals working together more closely, patients are seeing services work in a more joined up way, are only having to tell their story once and are receiving care better tailored to their individual needs.

The NHS is one of this country’s proudest achievements and it has always adapted to improve care. The growing number of older people in England is in part a testament to its success. But, with demand for care rising and new technologies emerging, the NHS needs once more to adapt to a changing world.

To achieve this, the NHS Long Term Plan set out a renewed focus on joining up services and investing in ways to prevent illness and keep people out of hospital. Integrated care systems are the central way that local family doctors, hospitals, care homes and others will do this.

What about frontline staff?

Integrated care systems draw on local knowledge about the priorities and challenges in different parts of the country. Frontline staff are crucial to understanding these. Many senior leaders come from a clinical background and leadership teams often include clinical representatives.

Integrated care systems allow areas to think about long-term solutions to local workforce goals and challenges, as well as supporting staff to develop their skills and provide the best care possible.