The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union may have unexpected impacts on healthcare
On June 24, the United Kingdom elected to leave the European Union (EU) after an extremely close vote of 51.9% to 48.1%. The world is still reeling from this decision, and not only the parts of the world that are directly involved with the EU. Even in the United States, major news sources are providing daily updates on the referendum, while individuals tirelessly search the web in an attempt to figure out exactly what “Brexit” means for them.
A lot is still up in the air regarding the consequences of Brexit. People must now struggle to separate the potentially empty promises of politicians from the real effects of this separation — a task that unfortunately is not as easy as one might think.
Prior to the vote, the official “Vote Leave” campaign claimed that membership in the EU cost the United Kingdom £350 million each week, and that that amount was “enough to build a brand new, fully staffed … hospital every week.”1 However, at this point, there has been no official mention of increased funding from the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).
The NHS provides medical checkups and most treatments free of charge to all residents. Because patients are not required to pay the bulk of their medical fees, the NHS relies on taxation and National Insurance contributions.2 While the publicly funded healthcare system is usually beneficial to the U.K., its stability depends on that of the economy.
“When the British economy sneezes, the NHS catches a cold,” NHS chief executive Simon Stevens told the BBC a month prior to the vote.3
Experts are still debating how Brexit will affect healthcare, both in the U.K. and around the globe. While there are no clear answers yet, ADVANCE wants readers to be aware of the possible effects of this change.
Possibility #1: Negative Impact
Largely, the expectation is that leaving the EU will have a negative effect on healthcare as a whole — in fact, an NHS Providers survey including a sample of 45 healthcare leaders in England showed that 75% of participants expected a negative impact. However, these leaders were not as certain about what specific aspects of healthcare would be affected. Only 38% predicted a negative impact on funding that the NHS receives, and 65% predicted a negative impact on access to shared learning and knowledge from clinical trials, networks or other research or innovation.4
Although the NHS Providers’ survey was inconclusive regarding Brexit’s impact on NHS funding, other sources are more confident that the funding will take a hit and have major consequences. Prior to the vote, the Economic Intelligence Unit predicted that by 2020, the NHS would spend £135 less per person if the U.K. elected to leave the EU. With increasing healthcare costs, if the Economic Intelligence Unit is correct, it is likely that the U.K. will see a significant decrease in the quality of care.5
Additional issues could arise in staffing. By 2020, the NHS is expected to face a shortage of approximately 16,000 primary care physicians, and by 2022, there is an expected shortage of 100,000 nurses. The U.K. is no stranger to shortages in healthcare professionals, but has traditionally tried to fill the gap by recruiting in foreign countries, especially those in the EU. With the U.K. voting to leave the Union, however, the fates of EU immigrants living in the U.K. are unknown, so the NHS will struggle in recruiting professionals from other EU countries.5
Possibility #2: Minimal Impact
Some expect Brexit to have a minimal impact on healthcare in the U.K. The NHS Providers’ survey showed that 40% of healthcare leaders felt leaving the EU would have no impact on the amount of funding that the NHS receives.4
Regardless of whether or not U.K. healthcare is impacted by Brexit, however, many healthcare experts are confident that globally, the healthcare market won’t see much of a change. “Healthcare enterprises — be it providers or payers — have limited connections to the U.K.,” wrote Paddy Padmanabhan, CEO of Damo Consulting Inc. “My guess is our world has been shaken and stirred a bit by all the noise about the stunning decision by U.K. voters to leave the EU, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably a blip — at least for healthcare.”6
Possibility #3: Positive Impact
It’s possible that there is light at the end of the tunnel: Some think that Brexit will actually have a positive impact on healthcare. Although most participants in the NHS Providers’ survey anticipated an overall negative impact on healthcare, 42% believed that leaving the EU would have a positive impact on procurement and competition rules affecting their trusts.4
Additionally, separating the NHS from the EU was actually a selling point for several Vote Leave activists. “The EU … creeps into every nook and cranny of our lives,” said British politician David Owen. “It is now becoming entrenched in the NHS. If we vote Leave — we will be able to protect our NHS from EU interference.”7
There’s no denying that Brexit will have effects on life in the U.K. — but will any of those effects be in healthcare? At this point, nothing is certain, so the best way to have an educated guess regarding the possible outcomes is to stay informed.
- Thompson, M., et al. “Brexit’s broken promises: health care, immigration and the economy.” CNN Money. 2016.
- “How the NHS is funded.” The King’s Fund. 2016.
- “Simon Stevens: ‘When the economy sneezes, the NHS catches a cold.” BBC. 2016.
- “First survey shows 75% of frontline NHS leaders say Brexit would have negative impact on NHS.” NHS Providers. 2016.
- Das, R. “What does Brexit mean for the U.K.’s NHS and healthcare in Europe?” Forbes. 2016.
- Padmanabhan, P. “Does Brexit matter to healthcare?” CIO. 2016.
- Owen, D. “NHS.” Lord David Owen: The Official Website. 2016.