Brexit could trigger NHS 'staffing crisis', researchers warn

Post-Brexit immigration restrictions could result in an NHS 'staffing crisis' - affecting the quality of both healthcare provision and research in the UK, a study has shown.

Brexit risk to NHS (Photo: iStock.com/from2015)
Brexit risk to NHS (Photo: iStock.com/from2015)

Researchers found that since 2004, doctors from Europe have made up the largest cohort of foreign-qualified practitioners in the UK - and that this group accounts for roughly 6.5% of the GP workforce.

The researchers found that the UK was ‘unusual in its dependence on internationally trained doctors’, with more than 30% of the workforce not trained in the UK - with one in three of these trained in Europe. By comparison, just 3% of doctors in France and 6% in Germany were internationally trained.

However, with the UK now officially in the process of leaving the European Union (EU), the study’s authors warned that NHS services and patient care, as well as health research and international co-operation could be undermined.

Research by a team at King’s College London and Queen’s University Belfast and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine looked at how Brexit may lead to restrictions on the immigration of scientists and medical personnel to the UK. The study noted that many medical practitioners also conduct scientific research.

'Considerable damage'

‘It is not clear what a post-Brexit immigration policy will look like in the UK or what its potential consequences will be, especially with regard to free movement,’ the authors wrote.

Currently, the free movement of EU citizens and mutual recognition of professional qualifications make it relatively easy for employers to hire EU nationals. However, the study notes that ‘maintaining this policy in a post-Brexit UK may be challenging, leading to a lack of appropriately qualified doctors practising in the NHS.’

The authors conclude: ‘It is vital that the national diversity in high-quality human capital… is maintained in a post-Brexit UK research and healthcare environment. Otherwise, there is a high risk of considerable damage to the UK’s top scientific outputs and international research reputation as well as a concomitant reduction in quality healthcare for UK citizens.’

Co-author Professor Richard Sullivan added: ‘It is distinctly possible that uncertainty about the ability of European citizens to work in the NHS may lead to a staffing crisis, as they seek work elsewhere.’

Patient care

A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘We are confident of reaching a deal with the EU that benefits patients and continues to deliver the best possible environment in which to support research and development in the UK.

‘Staff from the EU are a vital part of our NHS and they have important role to play in the future of the health and care system.’

Last week, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard told the RCGP annual conference 2018 that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit ‘really scares me’.

She said that 'a lot of people’ wanted the college to take a position on a second referendum on the final Brexit deal but, as a charity, the college couldn’t take a party political stance ‘on anything’.

‘It doesn’t stop us having views, it doesn’t stop us caring about our patients,’ she added.

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