Been too busy trying to keep pace with all the other ridiculous news this month? We’ve got your monthly health digest sorted.
1. Rejected new contract to be imposed on junior doctors
Jeremy Hunt announced that the most recent government contract offering for junior doctors will be imposed, with the majority of the profession operating under it by October 2016. The health secretary stated he was left with ‘no choice’ but imposition and refused renewed talks with the BMA. The contract was rejected earlier this month by BMA members, with almost 60% of junior doctors and medical students voting against its terms.
Further industrial action is thought to be unlikely among BMA members in the wake of this announcement, although mass resignation is feared and two counts of legal action against the NHS may well resume. Adding fuel to the fire, the King’s Fund think tank has issued a report stating that the government cannot afford its 7-day NHS pledge, undermining the very foundations on which the need for a new contract was justified.
2. The impact of Brexit on UK healthcare
With strong resourcing, funding, regulatory and research ties with Europe, it’s hard to fully grasp the impact leaving the European Union will have on the British health system. To try and make sense of it all, we’ve pulled together the most significant expert predictions and healthcare concerns of what Brexit means for UK health:
- NHS finances: whilst we already know the NHS is dealing with one of the biggest financial challenges in its history, new analysis from the Health Foundation reveals the extra burden presented by Brexit. If the government tries to balance the books, the NHS budget for 2019/20 could be £2.8 billion lower than currently planned, and that’s the “best case scenario”. The funding gap itself could in increase by £365 million each week up to 2030/31, and that is assuming the UK is able to join the EEA. Cuts within the NHS and other areas of public spending are highly likely.
- Recruitment: EU nationals make up a significant amount of NHS staff – approximately 55,000 in total or 5% of the workforce. This number represents a diverse array of skills, including pharmacists, paramedics, and nurses, although EU migrants are disproportionately likely to be doctors (EU nationals make up 10% of all NHS doctors). Brexit will not only potentially restrict the movement of more skilled employees to the UK, but the air of uncertainty and anxiety it brings, as well as potential work barriers, may encourage EU nationals currently supporting our health system to leave. Since the NHS is already battling with shortages – 40% of consultant positions alone remain unfilled and staff struggle to fill rota gaps – Brexit could provoke a full-on NHS staffing crisis.
- Data management: as a result of Brexit, EU data protection laws will no longer apply to the UK. In terms of stored NHS data, we may need to reform our data protection laws to ensure they are consistent with EU regulation, which is a necessary requirement for trading within the Single Market.
- Training: As a result of Brexit, the NHS will no longer be subject to the Working Time Directive first introduced into British law in 1998. This piece of legislation aims to cap the working hours of medical professionals in the interest of patient safety and employee welfare. Some, such as the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, have suggested this may present a positive opportunity to improve the quality of care, since removing strictures on shift patterns could allow surgeons-in-training a further 3,000 hours of extra training.
- Cost of drugs: The economic downturn following Brexit has worked to increase the basic prices of drugs, raising the concern that the NHS may not be able to afford them. Many of the pharmaceutical companies supplying the NHS drugs are not UK-based, so the NHS makes several large drug purchases in euros and dollars. Given the sizeable funding gap the NHS is already experiencing, raised drug costs may make the provision of life-saving drugs unaffordable through the NHS.
3. UK faces ‘sexual health crisis’ as cases of gonorrhoea and syphilis soar
Health experts are calling on government to prioritise investment into sexual health services as they warn the UK is heading towards a sexual health crisis. New statistics from Public Health England reveal some sharp rises in common STDs, with 41,193 cases of gonorrhoea reported in 2015 alone. Syphilis has also made a surprising comeback, witnessing a 76% rise since 2012.
Despite the prevalence of STDs in the UK, testing is shockingly low; only 13% of young men and 32% of young women took tests in 2015. The rise of gonorrhoea and syphilis in particular has been greatest among gay and bisexual men, but health experts urge all sexually active people to routinely screen for infections.
Visit our online Sexual Health Clinic for more information on STDs and testing.
4. Global HIV infection rates rising despite prevention efforts
HIV is infecting an estimated 2 million more people every year, according to a recent UNAids report. This aggressive rate of infection has been witnessed over the past five years and will render the global goal to eradicate AIDs by 2030 impossible if it continues. Parts of Eastern Europe and central Asia have even witnessed a 57% increase in HIV cases during this period. Experts explain that only 20% of global HIV funding is spent on prevention methods, and that funding itself has dropped substantially in recent years.
This news comes just as the NHS faces a legal challenge from the National Aids Trust for its decision not to fund HIV prevention treatment. NHS England claim that preventive treatment is the responsibility of local councils. The drugs in question are known as PrEPs (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and have proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection in those at high risk by more than 90%.
5. Improved UK Cervical Smear Test Announced
NHS England has added another weapon to its armoury in the fight against cervical cancer, announcing the launch of an improved UK cervical smear test. Following the successful implementation of its pilot nationwide screening programme, NHS England are now adding a test which tests for HPV, a service previously only offered to women whose smear samples contained abnormal cells. The cervical screen will continue to be offered to all women registered with an NHS GP between the ages of 25 and 64 on a routine basis.
This marks a great step forward in protecting British women against a largely preventable cancer, as more accurate testing is predicted to uncover an extra 600 cases of cervical cancer each year. HPV is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease, with 15 of its 100 detected strands causing cervical cancer. Largely symptomless and extremely common (80% of the world’s population are predicted to contract some form of HPV in their lifetime), regular testing, early detection, and vaccination can stave off the worst of HPV’s consequences.
See our article on HPV and cervical cancer to learn more.