NHS European Office

Patient access to medical research


Patients across the European Union, including the UK, benefit enormously from the current close collaboration between medical researchers who investigate, develop and test new treatments on an EU-wide basis.

The NHS Confederation, through its membership of the Brexit Health Alliance, has looked how this EU-wide collaboration might be impacted by Brexit.


The Brexit Health Alliance believes that unless there is a new partnership on science and research between the EU and the UK post-Brexit, patients will suffer, and has highlighted three areas of uncertainty for the medical research community.

  • Will the UK be able receive from/contribute to EU funding programmes and participate fully in collaborative opportunities to advance the discovery and understanding of diseases and ill-health across Europe?
  • Will those involved in medical research, including healthcare professionals, technicians and patients, be able to travel and work across the EU as freely as they do now ?
  • Will patients across Europe and the UK continue to benefit from pan-European clinical trials which involve the UK? Will UK patients be able to benefit as quickly from new drugs and treatments if the UK is not fully aligned with EU rules regulating medical research, medicines and medical devices?


This briefing from the Brexit Health Alliance sets out how patients across Europe have benefited from pan-European collaboration on medical research, outlines what is at stake if this collaboration is set back and what UK and EU decision-makers can do to mitigate the risks.


Patient access to medical research is also the subject of one of our Brexit podcasts, where we examine the implications of Brexit for real patients.  We hear from Dr Nick Sireau, a father involved in European clinical trials to find a cure for Alkaptonuria (a rare disease from which his two children suffer), and from the Wellcome Trust and Genetic Alliance UK on the UK’s involvement in the EU’s research and innovation programmes and the key issues for research in terms of the UK’s future regulatory cooperation with the EU.

Technical notices

The UK government has released a series of technical notices which seek to provide advice to businesses and the public on the possible effect of a no-deal Brexit. They include advice on how a no deal may affect the ability of healthcare professionals to travel and work across the EU post-Brexit

Collaboration in European Reference Networks (ERNs)

ERNs are virtual networks of healthcare providers from across Europe working together to find solutions for patients of rare and complex conditions.

Coordinated and targeted action under the newly established ERNs offers a real and tangible opportunity to draw on the collective expertise and experience of over 900 expert centres, connecting 300 hospitals across 26 member states, to revolutionise healthcare, break the isolation of patients, reduce health inequality and pave the way for faster diagnosis and access to expert advice, diagnosis and treatment.

ERNs offer hope to the 30 million patients across Europe who suffer from rare and undiagnosed conditions.

Patient benefit

The coordinators of the 24 ERNs and the alliance of European patient organisations (Eurordis), have both issued statements to coincide with the 2018 Rare Disease Day (28 February). These statements call on the EU and the UK government to put patients at the heart of the Article 50 negotiations and to find a solution for UK patients and healthcare providers to continue to benefit from these networks.

The NHS is involved in 23 of the 24 networks (approximately 40 NHS hospitals), with NHS trusts leading a quarter, and many others lead on delivery of outcomes from within their respective ERNs. It is of the utmost importance to secure the continued and lasting involvement and fruitful collaboration of UK colleagues, especially in the formative years of the ERNs.

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