Prof Derek Bell: As Brexit begins we must save the NHS

The quality of care is vital to the NHS. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The quality of care is vital to the NHS. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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While Brexit dominated the general election campaign, it was clear that the future of the NHS remained in the forefront of many voters’ minds. As we begin to move on from the latest election, increased focus must be given to the NHS – in all parts of the UK – to ensure we build a workforce fit for the future.

As Brexit talks begin, healthcare professionals from EU countries will, rightly, be seeking assurances about their role in the NHS. A positive approach from the UK Government ensuring the rights of EU doctors working - and EU medical students training – here would be welcome in this process and should also be reflected in the forthcoming Scottish Government’s National Health and Social Care Workforce Plan.

The plan, which will set out the steps required to ensure we have the right number of doctors, nurses and other medical and social care staff to treat and care for our future population, needs to create a working environment that is nurturing, values staff and creates an open culture focussed on delivering improvements in patient care.

Recruiting and retaining trainee doctors must also be a central component. Trainees leaving Scotland has happened for many years. Their decision to leave may not simply be based on the attractiveness or availability of posts in Scotland but on other factors, such as inflexibility in the system. Matching patient need to supply of doctors is about more than mathematical precision in recruitment, but offering attractive and flexible jobs to highly qualified individuals - wherever in the world they trained. The Conservative general election manifesto included plans to make the UK more self-sufficient when training and recruiting doctors, and there are plans to increase the number of undergraduate medical school places in England. While increasing the number of places is welcome, their proposals miss two key points.

The first is that a significant numbers of graduates leave the NHS (either moving to work in other countries or leaving medicine altogether) within a few years of qualifying. Workforce planning needs a clear strategic direction to address these recruitment and retention issues, including investment in our current and future workforce to create a culture where colleagues have the time to care, time to train, and time to research.

The second is that doctors from countries around the world play a vital and significant role in our NHS and in the delivery of safe patient care. This is not only welcome but is part of the continuous exchange of knowledge in healthcare and should be strongly encouraged.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh will continue to support schemes such as the Medical Training Initiative, a UK Government scheme that allows a number of non-EU medical postgraduates to train for up to two years in the UK.

Doctors and nurses from overseas should be recognised for the invaluable contribution that they make to the functioning of our NHS and should be a central part of our future workforce planning in Scotland and throughout the UK.

Prof Derek Bell is President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

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