Brexit: Leaving the EU could fuel a deeper GP crisis for the NHS

Leaving the EU risks deepening the crisis facing general practice, wans Oldham GP Dr Zahid Chauhan. Writing for GPonline, he argues that supporters of the NHS must ignore the Brexit lobby and vote to remain.

There has been much chatter about scaremongering during the current EU referendum campaign with both sides guilty of hyperbole on everything from loss of sovereignty to dire warnings of economic gloom.

But if there is one subject people should be deeply concerned about, it is the impact of potential Brexit on our health and healthcare system and the burden this will put on GPs – if they choose or are allowed to stick around should there be a leave vote.

The Brexiteers have used the NHS as a cause célèbre, claiming that a split from Europe will mean fewer immigrants to treat and more money to spend on the NHS.

NHS workforce

While everyone in healthcare wants more resource, leaving the EU would immediately create a staffing crisis previously unseen within the NHS. Around 10% of doctors and 4.5% of NHS staff overall are drawn from EU countries – a small number some may say, but these are people delivering specialised skills to our healthcare system.

They also bring fresh and tested ideas from other countries just as British health professionals would bring to Europe – but not of course if they are denied access by a leave vote (with any independent qualifications gained here becoming unrecognised in the EU). At a time where practically every hospital in the country is struggling to recruit experienced nurses, GPs are leaving in their droves and we can’t recruit or retain paramedics, losing this work force would leave the NHS dangerously depleted.

The slack would once again have to be picked up by primary care. Devoid of specialist support at acute level, we would be treating increased numbers of patients – perhaps prescribing more and more painkillers because hospitals could simply not recruit qualified physiotherapists. Of course we wouldn’t be party to any of the new and vital research the EU does on curing conditions either – Britain being the current biggest beneficiary of European health research funding.

EU regulations

Our workload could also be compounded by a rise in stress-related conditions caused by the removal of EU regulations on health and safety and working conditions. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 9.9m working days are already lost due to demands at work every year. My surgery in Oldham is stuffed full of patients struggling to come to terms with the demands of modern life and this manifests itself in everything from eating disorders to heart problems.

Of course it is also worth noting that only EU directives are keeping our junior doctors from sinking under a mountain of stress caused by long hours and exhaustion.

GPs may not see themselves as political animals but it is my hope that every one of them - plus their teams and their patients – considers what Brexit might mean. Because from where I am sitting, a leave vote could be one of the most unhealthy decisions this country ever makes – especially for the already beleaguered family doctors who will be left to pick up the tab.

  • Dr Zahid Chauhan is a GP at the Medlock Medical Practice in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, and Labour councillor for Oldham Council's Alexandra Ward. He is also a non-executive director for BARDOC (Bury and Rochdale Doctors out-of-hours service) and NWAS (North West Ambulance Service).

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