The question surrounding how the vote for Britain to leave the European Union, or Brexit, will impact the broader economic state has been swirling throughout a variety of industries for months. While the decision to leave the EU has yet to be finalized, the vote has the potential to reverse progress in several areas of the country from a financial perspective. One aspect of the change threatens the millions of patients who lean on the nation’s healthcare system each year, at a time where constraints on patient care are already at a historic high. In recent reports, a handful of medical organisations has cautioned an assembly committee on the far-reaching impact on health service recruitment that helps to keep the NHS adequately staffed.
The Welsh NHS Confederation, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, and UK ministers agreed that workers outside the UK but part of the EU make vital contributions to the healthcare system in the region, and have for some years. However, Brexit has the potential to reduce the allure for these qualified medical professionals to make a move to the UK for the purpose of working for the NHS. Being heavily reliant on EU and other healthcare workers from overseas puts the UK’s healthcare system – and its patients – at an unprecedented level of risk moving forward.
A Look at the Numbers
Given the immigration issues surrounding the Brexit vote, organisations focused on patient and healthcare advocacy have taken up the task of determining the full impact on Britain’s healthcare system. Out of the 1.2 million individuals who make up the English NHS staff cohorts, 55,000 are citizens of other EU countries, including critical providers like doctors, paramedics, pharmacists, and nurses, as well as support positions like administrative staff members. Nearly 10% of doctors and 4% of nurses are from a country outside the UK, partly due to a decline in British residents filling vital positions.
In the past few years, efforts to recruit qualified medical professionals from countries within the EU and elsewhere have risen. A growing patient population has placed increased pressure on the NHS to provide the best quality care available with the right number of staff on hand have made these recruitment efforts necessary. With Brexit, experts feel strongly that recruitment success from other countries will decline given the falling value of the pound and widespread uncertainty regarding the economic state of the country as a whole. Salaries paid to trained medical professionals are less attractive on their face, forcing considering recruits to look outside Britain for gainful employment.
Looming Patient Safety Risks
The reliance on immigrant recruitment to fulfill staffing needs within the NHS has steadily increased over the last decade, but that all has the potential to cease with the finalisation of leaving the EU. Without a large pool of qualified candidates to help adequately staff hospitals and other care facilities, the millions of patients who visit NHS trusts, A&E units, and clinics stand to suffer significantly. A representative from a solicitors’ firm that handles negligence claims to the NHS explains that the country’s healthcare system is already at its limits when it comes to caring for patients facing immediate healthcare needs. Intensive care units, for instance, are becoming so full that patients are unable to get a bed when they are facing serious medical issues which require timely recourse. Without a fully staffed ICU, individuals are more at risk of having surgeries, and other life-saving treatments delayed, leading to devastating results.
Within the last three years, the recruitment of GPs from Britain has shrunk by 20%, and nearly all hospitals within the UK reports a shortage of nurses during each shift. While some measures, like the government’s plan to end bursaries for student nurses, are aimed at reducing this shortage in staffing, Brexit has the potential to thwart ongoing efforts. Providing some degree of financial or another incentive plan to trained individuals in countries within the EU and other countries overseas may be a viable solution to improve the staffing issues facing the NHS before the problem reaches patients who rely on the health care system. However, without a system in place to attract highly qualified doctors, nurses, and other medical or support providers to the country, there is little hope that the healthcare system can remain as a sustainable organisation.