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How would a decision to leave the European Union affect medical research and health in the United Kingdom?

In an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, I argue that the UK must remain in the European Union (EU) to protect the health of UK residents. Also at risk following a vote to leave the EU would be the recruitment of doctors and healthcare workers to the NHS, medical research and teaching and the continued world-leading status of the top UK universities.

The most important impact of a ‘leave’ vote on health would arise from its economic effects, A Treasury analysis concluded a vote to leave the EU could lead to a £36 billion a year drop in tax receipts. The economic shockwaves following a departure from the EU could lead to substantial cuts to health and social care, and there would be an immediate negative impact on the health of UK residents. Lower levels of spending on social care would further increase pressures on both community and hospital services. For example, it would become more difficult to discharge frail, elderly patients from hospitals.

In the article, I also express concern about the impact on the NHS workforce of an EU exit. Currently around 50,000 people from the European Economic Area, including 9,000 doctors, provide a vital contribution to the NHS by plugging the gap left by key shortages in its workforce. The EU has established standards across member states for the training of doctors and health professionals. A vote to leave the EU would make future recruitment more difficult as the UK would have to negotiate with each EU country separately to ensure that doctors and other health professionals recruited to work in the UK are trained to the same standards expected from UK-trained staff.

Residents of the UK who visit other EU countries either as tourists or on business would lose their right to free or low-cost health care, which is currently obtained via the European Health Insurance Card. The right to publicly-funded healthcare of the two million citizens of the UK who live permanently in other European countries would also come under threat. The UK government would also be under no obligation to implement European-wide public health initiatives if the UK was no longer a member. These have had a major positive impact in areas such as food regulations, road safety, air pollution, tobacco control and chemical hazards.

The key role the UK plays in cross-national research projects, including many in health-related fields, would also be at risk. The UK currently engages very heavily with other member states of the European Union and with European institutions over many health-related and scientific issues. A vote to leave the EU would start an extremely complex programme of negotiations, lasting many years and with uncertain outcomes, that would threaten these positive collaborations. Given the very large potential negative effects of an exit from the European Union, doctors, health professionals, academics and their professional organisations should all be concerned about its consequences.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine website.

The article was covered by the BMJ and GP.

Coverage on social media can be viewed on Altmetric.

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