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Is Brexit Going to Cause an NHS Staffing Crisis?

Kevin Cross

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A post-Brexit exodus of doctors and nurses could be devastating for an already understaffed NHS.

According to a study by the Nuffield Trust, the NHS is facing disaster. As British expats pour in and doctors and nurses pour out, experts predict that the struggling service will soon experience unprecedented funding and staffing shortages.

The crisis is partly a product of Brexit. There are currently 190,000 British pensioners living abroad in Europe. At the moment, their health care is provided by the EU, rather than the NHS. If those benefits are withdrawn because of Brexit, the NHS will have to provide about 900 extra beds — enough to fill two whole new hospitals. With that enormous influx of patients, Britain is going to need more doctors and nurses than ever. Unfortunately, that influx would come in the midst of an unprecedented staffing shortage, which will be undoubtedly worsened if the massive exodus of foreign-born doctors and nurses practicing in the UK leave, as many are predicting.

The Health Care Conundrum

“The functioning of health and social care in the UK,” write the authors of the Nuffield Trust study, “is dependent on EU migrants who make up a significant proportion of the medical, nursing and social care workforces.” Indeed, a study in 2015 found that 35.4% of doctors in the UK are foreign-born, more than any other other major country in the EU.

“Not only might NHS resources fall, but existing chronic staff shortages could be worsened as half of the 10,000 EEA doctors working in the NHS are considering leaving the UK,” BMA council chair Mark Porter warned. “This would seriously impact patient care across the country and increase what are often already unacceptable delays for treatment.”

Looking Towards Long-Term Solutions

Although the potential impact of Brexit is daunting, there are steps the Department of Health could take to mitigate its effects. Securing free movement of labour for qualified doctors, or even guaranteeing permanent residence for current staff from the EU, would be a good start.

In the meantime, to ensure that the NHS has enough doctors in the future, the government recently announced it will provide funding to put 1,500 additional students through medical school each year. The Health Secretary has also pledged to “reform the current cap on the total number of places that medical schools can offer, which is set at just over 6,000 a year.”

While these initiatives may eventually help the UK’s health system recover from Brexit’s negative effects, there’s still a question of how to address staffing issues in the short-term. The NHS’ ability to fill that gap by tapping into existing pools of health care talent within the UK, as well as expat providers who may be forced to return once Brexit goes into effect, will largely boil down to its recruitment approach.

First and foremost, there needs to be an increased focus on talent marketing and communication — the NHS needs to start developing compelling, dynamic content and proactively distributing it through novel channels (social media, content streaming services, mobile-optimised search platforms) if it wants to reach its target audience and ensure its message is heard.

But it’s not just about reaching the maximum number of eyes and ears — it’s about gaining the ability to consistently identify the right candidates for the job in the most cost-effective way possible. I recently wrote an article about the NHS’ new Values-Based Recruitment strategy, and how innovative recruitment technology could help increase the efficacy of that approach. Gaining the ability to cast a wider net for medical talent without sacrificing quality of hire in the process wouldn’t just be a stop-gap solution — it could help the NHS fill vacancies with more right-fit hires, thereby boosting employee retention, quality of care and driving real value in the long term.

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