The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) faces increasing demand thanks to historical underfunding and recruitment deficits, according to a European Commission report published on Thursday (28 November).
Although the UK enjoys high life expectancy and the overall health status of the population is good, the report concluded that the average figures “mask wide disparities in health by socioeconomic status”.
The difference of life expectancy at birth between the most affluent and the most deprived is 9.3 years for men and 7.4 years for women.
Future UK-EU relations are unclear and the report comes just as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed that he had obtained official documents purportedly showing that the US is demanding that the NHS be “on the table” in post-Brexit trade deal talks.
The report was one of 30 Country Health Profiles created by the Commission in conjunction with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to provide an in-depth analysis of health systems in each EU country, including their effectiveness, accessibility and resilience.
The profiles are part of the Commission’s State of Health initiative, designed to provide comprehensive analysis and insights to help EU countries improve the health of their citizens and the performance of their health systems.
Shortages in the workforce are highlighted as a key challenge; the UK “relies on migration to sustain its health system” and international recruitment is currently “hampered by restrictive migration policies, uncertainties around the UK’s position vis-a-vis the EU and the rights of EU nationals living there”.
Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said that the NHS has “only one way” to fulfil its recruitment promises and that is by “recruiting additional nurses and doctors from outside the UK”.
The report found that although it has been steadily increasing, the number of doctors per 1,000 population is low compared to the EU average, with only 2.8 doctors per 1,000 population compared to an EU average of 3.6.
Furthermore, the number of nurses per 1,000 population has been declining since 2005, going from 9.2 to 7.8 in 2017, while the EU average increased in the same period.
It also concluded that temporary staffing was a key driver of overspending in the NHS and that a “drop in international recruitment has the potential to cause great pressure in social care” due to the substantial staffing shortages.
Health spending in the UK was found to be comparable to the EU average but said that “budgets have not kept pace with growing demand” and that expenditure per person is “considerably lower than similarly wealthy countries such as Germany and France”.
Affordability and accessibility of medicines have been a key concern related to the alleged post-Brexit US trade deal.
The report found that, as it currently stands, unmet needs are “relatively low” in the UK and that access is usually impeded due to waiting times rather than for financial reasons.
However, affordable access to healthcare and medicines was raised as a general issue across Europe, with the EU report finding that pharmaceuticals already account for at least 17% of total health spending across the EU – a figure that does not even fully include medicines used in hospitals.
Andriukaitis added that access to medicines was a “very complicated issue” which can only be addressed through “cooperation, coordination and discussions about pricing, reimbursement and transparency”.
The report concurs, concluding that “greater cooperation among EU countries” is needed to “improve affordability of medicines through more transparent pricing and greater competition among manufacturers”.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]