LONDON - Brexit has compounded a shortage of doctors in Britain, with an estimated shortfall of 4 000 in major speciality areas from EU countries, a study published on Sunday said.

It comes as the crisis-hit NHS state-funded health service struggles after years of underfinancing, with record waiting lists for some hospital care due to the Covid-19 pandemic but also a lack of doctors and nurses.

The Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, focused on four fields of medicine - anaesthesia, pediatrics, cardio-thoracic surgery and psychiatry - where European doctors had been particularly relied upon before the UK left the European Union.

It found that in the four areas - where recruitment was already challenging - "the increase in EU and EFTA (European Free Trade Association) staff slowed down, falling below the projected increase".

If the trend seen before Brexit had continued, there should have been more than 41 000 doctors from the EU or EFTA (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein) registered in 2021, or at least 4 000 more than the figures showed.

The study, commissioned by The Guardian newspaper, said:

The campaign and result of the EU referendum is the obvious reason for a change in trend around 2015 and 2016.
It highlighted initial uncertainty over new rules for the movement of people, followed by tighter visa rules and "deteriorating work conditions" in the health system.

"The findings suggest that stagnation in the number of EU doctors in these specialities has exacerbated existing shortages in areas where the NHS has not been able to find enough qualified staff elsewhere," it added.

The Royal College of Nursing last week announced that its members would next month hold their first strike action in the union's 106-year history in England and Wales, citing pay, conditions - and chronic staff shortages.