How will Brexit affect private healthcare? Jane Braithwaite examines the areas that might catch out independent practitioners.

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There has been plenty of doom and gloom about Brexit and how it might affect healthcare, but it is entirely possible that private healthcare may see some benefits from the increased competition.

While the impact on the NHS has been keenly analysed since the referendum result was first announced, there hasn’t been as much dissection of how the private sector might fare. Of course, factors which affect the NHS could also have an impact on private healthcare.

Many commentators have highlighted the risks that Brexit poses to the UK economy, but it is somewhat impossible to predict at this point what repercussions of any Brexit-related economic downturn might have on healthcare.

By contrast, it is significantly easier to assess the following key areas of healthcare which are likely to see significant changes: the workforce, health tourism and the regulation of drugs and devices.

There is so much concern over Brexit’s impact on healthcare that a number of organisations banded together to issue a plea for the UK and EU governments to prioritise patients. This article highlights some of the issues mentioned in the policy statement that are likely to affect the private sector.

How Brexit might affect: The Workforce

Recruitment and retention have been flagged as significant problems for the NHS, but the private healthcare workforce is much more variable.

Although the NHS can exactly pinpoint how many of their staff were born overseas, similar statistics do not exist for staff working privately in the UK. Anecdotally, though, many may agree that London’s private hospitals and clinics feature international teams.

Even conservative estimates mean that there could well be issues for private practices keeping and attracting medical and administrative staff.

There were chronic shortages of doctors across all specialties even before the referendum and applications for medical school and the foundation programme continue to drop.

Around 10% of NHS doctors are EU nationals and the dramatic fall in the number of EU nurses
registering to work in the UK is additionally cause for concern – applications dropped by 87% in 2017.

The private sector needs to become an even more attractive prospect for trained and experienced staff. This might mean turning more to external recruiters and adopting more modern recruitment methods. Could your training and education plan do with a refresh to benefit current and prospective staff?

Finally, providers need to consider succession planning – if they haven’t already – to help avoid a recruitment crisis.

How Brexit might affect: Health tourism

After a strong period of growth in 2013-15, revenues from overseas patients slowed somewhat in 2016-17.

Spire Healthcare cited a reduction in health tourism as a factor in the decision to shelve plans for a private hospital in London.

But if the pound weakens further, London and other major cities could become more attractive to overseas visitors. It is already a popular destination for patients seeking world-class care and specialties not available elsewhere.

The Middle East market is a particularly important one for the Harley Street Medical Area and Birmingham’s Edgbaston Medical Quarter, who have exhibited at the Arab Health Exhibition two years running.

But it is not just Middle Eastern patients who may need to access private healthcare in coming years. If Brexit means that EU citizens can no longer receive NHS treatment, might they turn to private medical insurance instead?

Citizens of the European Econ­omic Area (EEA) living in the UK may have little choice but to take out private medical insurance as individuals, or there may be a rise in corporate insurance for EU companies who stay in the UK.

How Brexit might affect: Regul­ation of drugs and devices

When Brexit finally takes effect, the UK’s influence in the approval and regulation of drugs may decline significantly. The Euro­pean Medicines Agency (EMA) is currently based in London and the UK has considerable influence – 20% of the EMA’s activity comes from the UK.

The EMA will relocate to Amsterdam after Brexit and some commentators believe that the shift may mean the UK will also lose its influence in getting new drugs and devices to market. This could mean that medicines and innovative devices could reach the UK market later than they do now, which will affect private patients just as much as those in the NHS.

Another regulation issue which has had a great deal of attention is the possible disruption to cancer treatments. If the UK is no longer a part of Euratom, which regulates the European nuclear industry, it needs to find another way to access radioisotopes that are used for radiotherapy among other treatments.

This could mean significant delays for treatment, and patients will naturally be affected.

London is currently a world leader for the treatment of cancer, with many specialist private clinics in Harley Street and elsewhere. If the UK Government does not resolve these issues in time, patients may start to look to other countries for medical care and private providers could feel the impact.

Top tips for BrexitConclusions

Private hospitals, practitioners and clinics in London are less likely to be affected by Brexit as the capital is well-established as an international centre of excellence for healthcare.

Outside of London, the long-term economic impact of Brexit may be what makes the most difference to the private medical insurance market.

Along with other industries, private healthcare is affected by the continuing uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations.


Jane Braithwaite is Managing Director at Designated Medical and regularly contributes to the Independent Practitioner Today publication.

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