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What a difference a month makes

7 June 2016

June 2016 is upon us and whilst our thoughts may be turning to the forthcoming championship tennis and other sporting highlights, across the nation a different game of bat and ball is unfolding. June’s impending EU ‘In / Out’ referendum will undoubtedly be the most impacting political decision that the British public will make and will create a paradigm shift for the UK. However, trying to make sense of the media assault of information about Brexit seems to me to leave only one thing clear; that the UK’s ‘choice’ seems to be riding on a set of very confusing forecasts and predictions, for which there seems to be little reassurance around accuracy. As the 23rd June draws near, the accusatory campaigns intensify, fuelled by speculation, and the outcome seems somewhat unpredictable.

The healthcare sector and Brexit

I am riveted by the referendum debate; I think it is the politics graduate in me, although I am anxious about the social, economic and political consequences about the various potential outcomes of a ‘Brexit’.  However, as a specialist recruiter for the Health sector, I have been more deeply immersed in the debate amongst senior leaders within the sector about the possible impact on the economy and access to talent for the sector should we exit.

It is important to get a sense of the scale of the European workforce contribution to sector, looking first at the NHS. The TUC have recently reported;

“Just under 50,000 citizens from the European Economic Area (EEA) currently work in the NHS, including over 9,000 doctors; 18,000 nurses, midwives and health visitors; and 2,500 other professionals, such as physios and radiographers. These workers provide vital skills and expertise – and they plug gaps left by the underfunding of training places.

The UK is still recoiling from failed ‘initiatives’ such as Project 2000 and under investment in training, which left us critically exposed. As demand for NHS services has increased relentlessly, the service had little choice but to respond to this shortage by employing EU workers. However, in response to the Lord Carter’s review, new initiatives such as the Nursing Workforce Programme Board are being trialled, to aid better NHS workforce planning, and to improve recruitment and retention of staff as part of a radical overhaul. This journey will take time before we see the benefit. In the meantime, the EU workforce continues to augment the gaps. If we exit, it is unclear what mechanisms would be in place to fill the gaps should limits on professional migrants be enforced. If limits are enforced, this could compound the substantial current challenges already faced by the NHS.

Equally, the life sciences sector relies heavily on international recruitment. Attracting and retaining talent is a constant concern for executives in these organisations. Clearly, Brexit doesn’t just pose workforce issues for the NHS. In a recent blog for Deloitte, Karen Taylor, Director for UK Centre for Health Solutions noted that there could be a significant impact on the UK life sciences sector when it comes to attracting talent.

“Most research and development facilities in the UK are staffed by people from across the EU; meaning pharmaceutical companies may find it more difficult to attract talent from abroad and retain existing talent. For example, if EU funding was cut to UK research projects, how quickly might academics desert the UK for countries with easier access to collaborative international research project”.

The counter arguments to this rather pessimistic outlook are equally indeterminate. They focus primarily on the impact of migration and the current costs for EU membership. Professor Angus Dalgleish, a leading medical expert, has given warnings about the effects of the government underestimation on migration declaring “The health service is being bled dry - this is why our NHS faces a £3 billion deficit”. In some parts of the scientific community there are those who feel that greater freedom from the restraints of Brussels could provide greater global collaboration and removing the ties of the regulatory burden of the EU could create more opportunity. 

What we cannot underestimate is the importance of the Health ecosystem to the UK. The life sciences sector is a powerful economic contributor to the UK and we are regarded as a world leader in R&D. Our academic excellence is revered and we have some of the world’s most respected universities who are developing the future talent within the R&D industry. In an increasingly competitive global market, innovative life sciences companies have recognised the need to work more collaboratively with the NHS and the wider manufacturing industry to accelerate healthcare innovation and to continue to make the UK an attractive proposition. This has especially been the case for clinical trials. The quality and delivery of clinical trials and health economic data ultimately improve patient outcomes by offering better diagnosis and treatment of diseases, therefore it is vital that this continues to be delivered optimally. Any barriers that could make conducting trials more complicated and cumbersome may threaten this. If we exit, it is also unclear if our continued participation in the European regulatory framework would remain. The EMA would likely relocate its UK headquarters elsewhere in the EU, creating disruption and again weakening our position.

There are so many questions with no guarantees. Nobody can provide accurate answers because no country has disentangled themselves from the EU in the last 40 years. One client said to me recently “if you were outside of the EU, knowing what we know now, would you join?” As I struggle to gain clarity I’ve reflected on this and have formulated my opinion.  So we sit on the precipice of the unknown. If we do exit, the UK will undergo the biggest transformation in recent history, and the one prediction I am happy to make is that there will undoubtedly be an unprecedented demand for specialist interim leaders who have led major change and transformation programmes.

Emma Whittle is a Consultant in the Healthcare practice at Odgers Interim


Categories: Healthcare

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