In the fifth article in this series, Dr Nigel Watson explains how to set up a practice-based intranet and discusses the potential benefits

The applications of intranets are having a major impact on the way that organisations conduct and manage their business.

An intranet allows a business – from small to large – to create, deliver and organise its information.

Intranets may sound technical, complicated and difficult to set up, but with a little time and imagination they are simple and easy to establish, and the technology is not difficult to learn.

The internet is an open environment that is available to all, whereas an intranet is a closed environment that is accessed over an internal network, and is available only to those connected to that network.

Most GPs and practice managers have a desktop PC connected to a server via a local area network (LAN): these are the only essential pieces of equipment that you need to set up an intranet in your practice.

An intranet is:

  • An internal network that uses internet technology and protocols to distribute information to individuals within an organisation
  • Based on open standards, which give those on the network access to a wide variety of computer equipment and software
  • Applicable to all sizes of organisations, from a small group (e.g. a department) to a widely dispersed organisation (e.g. a PCT or PCG).

Why have a practice-based intranet?

On a daily basis, GPs view documents and receive information that may be useful at a later date. Documents pile up, never to be used again, at least in part because they can no longer be found. With a practice-based intranet, useful information and documents can be stored and retrieved in a more user-friendly format.

Software and hardware required

Hardware

By April 2002, following the installation of NHSnet, all practices will have the essentials for setting up an intranet, i.e. a LAN with a server and desktop PCs. A scanner and digital camera may also prove useful.

Software

In its simplest form, an intranet can be developed using common word-processing packages such as Microsoft Word. Files may be saved as Word documents, or as web pages using the 'Save as HTML' facility. The only requirement is that the software package allows hyperlinking of files.

As the documents are essentially web pages and viewed via a web browser, they can be created and saved using any web page editor. Microsoft FrontPage 2000 is an example of such a package.

How to create an intranet

Start with simple things and then expand. A good starting point might be some practice policies, and then expand to include address books, calendars and comprehensive documents.

Establish which is the drive that enables documents to be shared across the LAN. This will be one of the hard drives on the server.

Now create a separate folder in Windows, and call it 'Intranet'. Within this folder, create sub-folders as required to ensure that file management remains simple and uncluttered.

Remember that if you move files after they have been hyperlinked, the linkage will be broken.

Start with a home page. This can contain a welcome message or some practice information. It may prove useful, especially in larger practices, to link this to a 'diary for the day'. This can include details of GPs who are on holiday, half-days, on-call arrangements, and meetings.

This page can then be linked to specific professional areas, e.g. GPs, nurses and receptionists (see Figure 1, below). When there are going to be a number of linked files to one area (as in Figure 2, below) it is well worth creating an index page.

Figure 1: Structure of the author's practice intranet, showing links from the home page
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Figure 2: Structure of the author's practice intranet, showing links from the 'GPs' page
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How to link documents (create hyperlinks)

To link two documents electronically, simply highlight an area of text in one document, then click on the hyperlink icon on the tool bar. This then asks for a file for the link to be formed. Type in the file name. The text will then change to a different colour and become underlined, indicating that is is now a 'hyperlink'.

After saving the document, test the hyperlink by passing the cursor over the underlined area of text. If linked correctly, the mouse arrow will change to a hand, and clicking the mouse will cause the linked document to appear.

Types of files and documents

Original

These are documents produced in the practice which everyone can access. They could be single-page documents such as a rota, or more complex documents such as an indexed directory of useful telephone numbers.

Practice professional development plans (PPDPs) can be available to everyone on the network, enabling a number of contributors to help develop the document.

Internet files

Many health-related publications, e.g. National Service Frameworks and the NHS Plan, are available on the internet. These documents can be downloaded from the internet and saved on the server. The downloaded documents can then be made available to all via a link to the practice's intranet.

When downloading a document from the internet, you are sometimes offered the option of doing so as a Word file or PDF (portable document format). PDF documents are easy to download and store, but cannot be edited, and can only be read on a PC that has Adobe Acrobat Reader software installed. This software can be downloaded free by following a link from most sites offering the PDF option.

Scanned documents

Original documents can be scanned into a file and then linked to another file. This may be a more useful way of storing small reference documents than filing the original paper document.

Access to an intranet

Access is restricted to anyone who has access to the LAN. To allow easy access to an intranet, an easily identifiable icon will need to be added to all PCs on the network. Once the icon has been added, click the right-hand mouse button to access 'properties'.

This allows two areas to be viewed: 'general' and 'shortcut'. Look at the shortcut page. The target file should be the file name and directory address of the 'home page' of the intranet. This will allow access to the practice intranet by clicking on the defined icon.

Intranet software packages

Commercial intranet packages are available, e.g. Digerati (www.nhsia.nhs.uk/digerati) and Microsoft FrontPage '60 Minute Intranet Kit' (http://officeupdate.microsoft.com/2000/downloadDetails/60Minute.htm), but I have little experience of these.

Conclusion

You do not need to be a computer programmer or a full-time IT consultant to produce a practice intranet. All that is required is some basic hardware and software, some time and a little imagination.

Figure 3 (below) shows some examples of intranet pages from our practice intranet.

Figure 3: Examples of intranet pages from the author's practice intranet
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Guidelines in Practice, May 2001, Volume 4(5)
© 2001 MGP Ltd
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