Brexit will pose serious challenges to the NHS and healthcare in the UK including: longer waiting times, increased pressure on staffing levels, a reduction in rights when travelling and delays in the approvals of medicines, a new report by academic think tank The UK in a Changing Europe finds.
The report, Brexit and the NHS, argues that while the NHS already faces funding pressures, these might increase as a result of the impact of leaving the EU. This might reduce the funds available for healthcare, which will have direct knock-on effects on waiting times, recovery rates and quality of care.
Around 200,000 EU nationals work in the health and social care sectors. They are pivotal to the NHS in London, south east England and Northern Ireland. These areas could become vulnerable to skills shortages should future immigration rules be more restrictive. Fewer staff could lead to a reduction in service quality.
Reciprocal rights for patients across the EU allow access to healthcare. UK nationals may need to take out private health insurance in the event of changes to the current regime. This could have particularly negative consequences for the elderly and those with chronic conditions.
On the island of Ireland health care provision in areas such as sexual health, diabetes and eating disorders is integrated across the border. The radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry/Londonderry is accessible to patients in County Donegal in the Republic who would otherwise have to travel long distances to obtain the same treatment.
Such integration is facilitated by the EU directive on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. EU rules on data protection enable sharing of patient details. While continuing cooperation can be facilitated post-Brexit the report highlights the challenges if agreements are not put in place.
There are serious implications for the markets for drugs and medical devices, including:
- The UK may lose access to EU monitoring and notification systems for pharmaceuticals
- UK approved pharmaceuticals may not be approved by use across the EU
- New drugs may be less likely to be launched in the UK, which may become a comparatively low priority market given its relative size to the EU.
A new EU Clinical Trials Database, into which all clinical trial applications must be entered, has been set up. The UK would not have access to it unless a specific agreement is reached, which could impact on UK researchers wanting to undertake cross-EU clinical trials.
UK organisations are the largest beneficiaries of EU health research funds. EU legal frameworks – for instance on data protection, human tissue regulation and safety of clinical trials – underpin cross-border collaboration.
Equally, The Rapid Alert System for Human Tissues and Cells (RATC) and the Rapid Alert System for Blood and Blood Components (RAB) enable information regarding adverse reactions to be shared quickly across member states.
The UK would not have access to these rapid alert and information systems unless there were specific sectoral agreements in place.
Brexit may also have impact on health in the devolveds. In Wales, the withdrawal of EU funding might have an adverse impact on the determinants of health. In Scotland, several health projects have benefited from EU funding, which may cease by the end of any transition phase.
In Northern Ireland cooperation on health-related goods and services, health professionals and patients, and the sharing of facilities and funding will be challenged by Brexit.
Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe, said: “This report shows the UK’s future relationship with the EU will play a critical role in the health and well-being of the country. Our aim has been to make clear the potential challenges so they can be anticipated and appropriate action taken.”
The UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit and the NHS conference takes place on Wednesday 14 March at the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London.
Keynote speaker is Lord David Owen and panelists include MPs Dr Paul Williams and Dr Philippa Whitford and chief executive of NHS Employers, Danny Mortimer, and Professor Martin McKee.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.