UK Healthcare System: Everything You Should Know

 In Healthcare, United Kingdom

When moving to the United Kingdom (UK), it’s important to consider the UK healthcare system and what it includes. If you’re planning on moving to the UK anytime soon, rest assured you’ll feel right at home there. For many global citizens, moving to the UK is a popular choice because of its cultural diversity. The UK welcomes people from all over the world, and in fact, there are over 250 languages spoken in London alone, making the capital one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse cities in the whole world!

The UK is a sovereign state in Europe consisting of the countries England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The UK’s healthcare system is considered one of the most efficient healthcare systems in the world and is also ranked first in terms of efficiency. It’s a system that provides public healthcare to all of its citizens and permanent residents, which are about 58 million people. Healthcare coverage is free through the National Health Service (NHS), which is funded through general taxation.

While NHS provides free or low-cost services to many UK citizens, private healthcare is also a popular option when looking at the UK healthcare system. Private healthcare allows you to have additional choices outside of what NHS provides, and ensures extra coverage. This article will break down the UK healthcare system for you, and explain public healthcare and private healthcare in the UK.

Public Healthcare in the UK

NHS and what it covers

The UK healthcare system has public healthcare, which is also known as the NHS. NHS was created in the 1940s and is a government-funded medical and healthcare service responsible for providing free healthcare to the citizens of the UK. Each country has its own NHS system – the National Health Services (England), NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland. Some NHS services include:

  • Consultations with a General Practitioner (GP) or nurse
  • Treatment with a specialist after being referred by your GP
  • Hospital treatments
  • Maternity services
  • Ambulance services
  • Sexual health services

Each NHS system uses GPs to provide treatment and to make referrals to specialists should it be deemed necessary. Public hospitals provide these specialist services, such as mental health care and access to emergency departments. These health services have contracts with pharmacies to supply prescription drugs.

You can find a GP in the UK here.

UK citizens can also call for an ambulance at 999 or 111. NHS provides free ambulance services for emergency or life-threatening situations. They can also receive specialist transport systems available or from ambulance crews when patients are not fit to travel home by public transport. These services are usually provided by voluntary ambulance services such as the British Red Cross, St. Andrews Ambulance Association and St John Ambulance. In Scotland, patient transport services by air are provided by the Scottish Ambulance Service.

However, the NHS systems differ slightly between countries. For example, citizens in England have to pay partially for prescription drugs, while Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are fully covered by their respective governments.

How NHS is funded

The NHS is funded from general taxation supplemented by National Insurance contributions (NICs). UK’s income tax is pretty high, with an estimated 20 percent of a UK citizen’s income. 18 percent of this tax goes to healthcare, which is about 4.5 percent of an average citizen’s income. NHS organisations such as hospital trusts can also generate additional income through parking charges, land sales and treating private patients.

How to receive NHS services

If you live in the UK, you can register with a GP at your local clinic to receive NHS services. Upon registering, you’ll receive an NHS number. You can also register online by using the NHS app. Your NHS number is a ten-digit number that is unique to you, to help staff and service providers identify and track your health records.

You will need to show an identification card and proof of residence to register for an NHS number. This number is issued when you first register for healthcare services and stays the same for the rest of your life. It is important in helping you book services online or register for prescription drugs.

If you plan on staying in the UK for less than 3 months but longer than 24 hours, you can still register as a temporary patient. This might be compulsory if you have a chronic illness or condition and are travelling in the UK.

The NHS Long Term Plan

Waiting for NHS treatment - UK healthcare system
Photo credit: toodtuphoto / 123RF

The NHS Long Term Plan was published on 7 January 2019 by NHS England to set out its priorities for healthcare for the next ten years. It also shows how the NHS funding settlement provided by the government will be used. The NHS Plan ensures more power to patients, more hospital services and doctors available, short waiting time, improved geriatric services and high standards for NHS organisations.

To understand more about the NHS Long Term Plan, you can read up here.

Private healthcare in the UK

Why get private health insurance

Since NHS covers an extensive amount of healthcare services in the UK, the private healthcare sector is considered a niche market. Only around 10.5 percent of the population invest in private health insurance, which is a small amount, compared to other countries in the world.

The purpose of private healthcare in the UK is so that patients can have quicker access to treatment by avoiding longer waiting times, choice of specialists and better facilities. By purchasing health insurance, you are able to receive private treatment and have your medical bills covered. Patients can also enjoy private ward rooms rather than sharing a ward with other patients.

Since private healthcare is such a niche market, you should only purchase private health insurance if:

  • You want to avoid long waiting times in NHS treatment
  • You want access to private hospitals and treatment
  • You want a choice of specialist if referred by your GP
  • You want a private ward instead of an open ward
  • You need scans done without delay
  • You want faster access to physiotherapy
  • You need access to specialist drugs and treatments not covered by NHS
  • You are able to afford it

How to get private health insurance

Some private insurance is offered to employees as part of company benefit plans. Employers will set up the policy for employees and pay all the premiums as part of a package when working for them. Other employers may also offer access to cheaper private medical insurance if you are unable to purchase them individually. Although some insurance companies do not cover GP services, emergency care, maternity services or mental health services, it’s important to choose an insurance company that covers the healthcare services that you desire.

If your employer does not offer private health insurance or you would rather purchase policies individually, there are other ways to receive private health insurance – insurance companies (through an insurer), financial adviser or a broker.

Looking for a medical insurance broker? Find one on the British Insurance Brokers’ Association (BIBA) or the Association of Medical Insurers and Intermediaries (AMII). 

Types of private health insurance

Usually, you can take out a personal insurance package tailored to your needs, or what you desire covered. The premiums will depend on your level of cover and whether you have had any previous medical conditions. When first taking out private health insurance, you need to pay a percentage of the total cost. Choosing a private health insurance that caters to your needs is important, as different health insurance companies cover different areas of healthcare services.

There are a few types of medical insurance:

  • Full Medical Underwriting: Usually requires your full medical history, or at least pre-existing medical conditions of the past five years
  • Moratorium: You can give a limited answer regarding your medical history to your insurer, and can also be the more convenient option

There are also condition-specific or special health insurance policies, such as policies that only cover you if you have to wait longer than 6 weeks for NHS treatment, or policies designed for senior citizens or focus on specific illnesses such as cancer.

You can also choose to receive private healthcare without being covered by insurance if you have a specific incident where you’d rather not be on a super long waiting list. Although, be prepared to pay for the extensive private healthcare fees!

Private healthcare cost in the UK

If you’re looking to pay for private healthcare out of your pocket, it’s important to be mentally prepared to blow lots of money. Private healthcare in the UK is pretty expensive, and if you’re curious for rough estimates, here are some prices:

  • GP consultations: £199+
  • Private cataract surgery: £2,300+
  • Private hip replacement: £11,110+

If you’re looking to pay for private health insurance independently, expect to pay around £100 per month, which would usually come up to more than £1000 annually. So if you’re looking to avoid the NHS services queues, expect to pay a hefty sum to get more personalised or faster service, as both health insurance and paying independently can prove to be pricey.

If you’re looking to find out more about private health insurance in the UK, you can head over to our Insurance In The UK article [link].

All in all, the UK healthcare system is relatively advanced and affordable for anyone. Even if you’re an expat that is not a permanent resident, fear not, as you’re still eligible to apply for NHS services. If you desire more choices in your medical treatment or would rather not wait in a queue for long, then purchasing private health insurance would be wise. Especially after seeing those impressive prices for those who wish to pay for medical procedures independently!

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