NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has said that the British Department of Health and healthcare industries across the country have been making significant preparations for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Over the past few months, concerns have been raised that the importation of drugs and medical equipment could cause unnecessary hardship for patients, but how will Brexit affect the UK medical technology industry?

Abhi communications manager Jonathan Evans discusses the EU medical technology market, the potential implications of Brexit and what companies could be doing to prepare themselves.

Charlotte Edwards: How big is the EU market for the British medical technology industry?

Jonathan Evans: The EU is the UK’s biggest export market for health technologies, with around £2bn worth of goods sent to our European neighbours each year. On the flip side, of the £5bn total imported health tech used by our health system, £3.2bn comes directly from the EU and our reliance on this source, as a country, has also increased by 20% in recent years.

“We also did a business survey among our members at the tail-end of 2017, and despite the climate of Brexit, the EU remains the number-one priority for the UK’s health tech companies. I think if you’re running a small business, which is what makes up the vast majority of our industry, you simply can’t afford to sit around and wait. So for most, it’s a case of business as usual until we hear otherwise.

CE: How will Brexit affect the British medical technology industry? Are there both good and bad potential outcomes?

JE: I think if you ask anyone, not just in our sector, the one thing business is screaming out for is clarity. So without any tangible assurances in place, it’s tricky to tell what our future looks like, post-Brexit. Certainly, there are opportunities, but the process needs to be carefully managed.

There are a number of issues that do call out for clarity, and two stand out: ensuring all products used in healthcare are exempt from any new customs, tariff or VAT arrangements, and afforded pre-shipping clearance and fast track access across any new areas and there should, at least initially, be continued compliance with the current certification mark marking system for medical devices and the continued validity of products currently in the marketplace.

CE: How far do you think the NHS will be affected?

JE: The fact that 62% of all imported health tech used in the NHS comes directly from the EU brings the issue sharply into focus. And even more importantly, many of these products are delivered ‘next day’. So any delay to supplies could have a very real impact on patients. Of course, nobody wants this to happen and we are confident that sensible, pragmatic solutions will be in place on day one.

The other issue is around workforce. We all know the NHS is under-resourced and relies on many overseas workers; therefore it’s so important we ensure the continued availability of skilled labour and we are able to access the best talent globally.

CE: Is there anything that medical technology companies should be doing to prepare for any negative impacts of Brexit?

JE: Navigating the changes brought about by Brexit does indeed require diligence and coordination. I think there are three important areas: communication, supply chain and Notified Bodies/authorised representatives. For the former, let your international partners – including those in the EU – know that Britain is still open for business.

But, also address the possible outcomes for each of the future trade models on the source and supply of your components and finished products. A full audit using the various scenarios will help you understand possible cost increases and speak to your Notified Body as a matter of urgency, to ensure they have appropriate capacity to manage your products.

CE: Do you think Theresa May’s planned investment into artificial intelligence in healthcare will soften any negative implications?

JE: I think the Prime Minister’s comments were really welcome and it’s great to see leadership championing the value of technology-led solutions. How Brexit plays out in relation to the NHS remains to be seen, but if we take a value-based approach to the purchasing and use of cutting-edge technologies, then that will only benefit patients.

Technology and AI has revolutionised the way we live our lives and it’s a natural next step to embrace and adopt such innovation in healthcare.