Brexit and the future of UK medical research

We are now living in a post-Brexit world. On the 23rd June 2016, we as a nation decided to leave the European Union and navigate our own way through this increasingly connected world. For 43 years, the UK has been a member state of the EU, working in an inter-connected market of free-trade and political collaboration, but is now set to re-negotiate its existence on the European mainstage.

 Throughout the campaign, one of the most discussed areas was the effects of leaving the EU on British healthcare and scientific research. Over the last four decades, co-operation between the EU and its individual member states has led to breakthroughs in cutting-edge scientific research and disease prevention and control.

 Researchers in the UK and other states have led the way when it comes to cancer projects, animal biology research, and industrial sciences that help us to compete globally. Now, there is confusion and uncertainty on both sides of the Channel about the future of the UK’s involvement in these projects, which has created concerns amongst the medical and scientific communities. After all, Britain has pioneered much of this research and is a contributor both in terms of funding and manpower.

 Between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research and development whilst receiving €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities. This makes the UK one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU, according to The Royal Society.

 The majority of this funding is from Framework Programme 7 which has now been succeeded by Horizon 2020. This funding mechanism provided the UK with €6.9 billion between 2007 and 2013 in order to promote UK scientific research and in turn help to strengthen the EU’s research base. But where this money is directed is where concern arises.

 The UK’s university sector leads the way for research. It was allocated €1.9 billion between 2007 and 2013. It has seen universities like Manchester, Durham and Leeds become involved in influential partnerships such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) which aims to speed up the development of, and patient access to, innovative medicines. Its allocated funds also generate more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, £1.86 billion for the UK economy and contributes more than £1 billion to GDP, according to a recent report published by Universities UK.

 Universities and business leaders across the country have voiced concerns about the possible threat to the economic security of the research sector and the wider implications this will have on the overall UK economy.

 So what will happen to the future of this economic and scientific powerhouse? Well, the European Commissioner Carlos Moedas has reassured the UK for now.

 “The referendum as such doesn’t change anything regarding their eligibility for funding under Horizon 2020, the world’s biggest research and innovation funding programme”, commented Moedas.

 “As long as the UK is a member of the European Union, EU law continues to apply and the UK retains all rights and obligations of a member state.”

 However, when Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered and negotiations on the UK’s relationship with Europe begin, Moedas noted that “There is no precedent in the EU’s history”, leaving the unknown future of science in the UK in the hands of the negotiators.

 The implications of the uncertainty are also not just limited to research- there are also worries about the future of the UK economy of the health of the NHS.

 The chairman of the NHS Confederation and the former Conservative Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, has argued that “We need a strong economy to guarantee the growth in funding that the health and care service require and evidence suggests leaving the EU would undermine this.”

 There are also issues over recruitment- the NHS is staffed by both UK and EU professionals with 10 per cent of our doctors and four per cent of our nurses with many more choosing to train here in the UK. The future of citizenship and the ability of future health and care workers to move and train in the UK depends entirely on the results of the upcoming negotiations.

 However, the image isn’t a complete flat-line. Describing Brexit as “quite an opportunity”, Clare Marx, the President of the Royal College of Surgeons, has said that leaving the EU could improve standards in the NHS.

“We are concerned that the current testing remains insufficient and risks patient safety”, said Marx on the current situation with patient care.

 “We do language testing but we don’t do medical language testing. That language test is often just simply talking about everyday life.”

 Currently, national regulators are not allowed to insist the use of technical vocabulary within a clinical setting- an issue that proved fatal in 2008 when German doctor Dr Daniel Ubani gave one of his patients 10 times the normal dose of diamorphine. By the leaving the EU, we would no longer be under EU regulatory control, making us able to control standards of equipment and the hours worked by professionals.

 Also, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, writing in the Daily Telegraph made the point that “we’re still going to need committed professionals from abroad.”

 He also added that, “Australian-style immigration points systems all admit nurses, doctors and other skilled experts. It should be completely uncontroversial to provide early reassurance to international NHS employees about their continued welcome in this country.”

 Looking to the next two years, all implications on areas including research and health care provision, will depend on how the UK redefines its relationship with the EU. As a new disruptive startup in the healthcare sector we provide a tailored offering through our robust and impartial interrogation of medical options and provision of truly independent medical intelligence on a global scale, so any changes to the access of information or medical professionals on a global score affects the very core of our business and the needs of our clients. But for now, we are still very much a part of the EU process and until Article 50 is triggered, it is business as usual.

Alivia Swiss Health’s Medical Intelligence Unit have been looking into the effect Brexit might have on medical practice and medical research in the UK. www.alivia.com

Richard Kensett
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