The healthcare system in the United Kingdom

The healthcare system in the United Kingdom
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Updated 2021-09-15 09:26

The UK has had a universal, publicly-funded healthcare system since 1948. After the Second World War, the National Health Service (NHS) was established as part of a wider welfare reform designed to eliminate unemployment, poverty and illness, and to improve education. Healthcare in the UK is free and paid for by income tax (18% of a citizen’s income tax goes towards healthcare) and general taxation. Private healthcare sustained through the purchase of private health insurance is also an option, but it’s still a developing sector that isn’t widespread in the UK.

The NHS

The NHS comprises the National Health Services (England), NHS Scotland, NHS Wales, and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland. The NHS is British people’s pride because it was funded when the country showed the world that it puts citizens’ health and wellbeing over financial profit despite the post-war adversities. Before the foundation of the NHS, healthcare was available to employed citizens, the wealthy, or those supported by charities. With the introduction of the NHS, everyone was and still is eligible for healthcare.

Overall, the NHS is an efficient and high-quality system that helps British people lead healthy lives through prevention and timely treatment. The NHS provides preventive services such as screenings, immunisations, maternity care, mental healthcare, rehabilitation (e.g. physiotherapy), palliative care, and clinically necessary dental and eye care. People who need assistive devices such as wheelchairs and hearing aids can access those via the NHS.

On the downside, public hospitals often lack modern equipment and medical staff due to limited funding. At the same time, people tend to use free medical services inconsiderately, burdening the system, which is weighted down with longer waiting times for specialist care and non-emergency surgery.

Tip:

For more information on maternity care, read Expat.com’s article about having a baby in the UK.

Good to know:

The government regulates the number of slots for undergraduate medical and dentist degrees. In the academic year 2018–2019, 6,700 places were available for medical degrees in England. There’s a plan to expand the number of undergraduate training slots to address the workforce shortage. Undergraduate degrees are financed through student fees whereas the remaining four to six years of medical training is funded by the government.

Useful links:

NHS app

Healthcare for different patient categories

The NHS is concerned with patients’ individual needs and the type of care they need and strives to do the best for each individual with the means it has, which often are minimal. For example, under the government’s National Service Framework, people living with long-term neurological conditions are considered for support to live an independent life and access medical specialists as close to home as possible. Also, older people are offered extended access to NHS services such as free sight tests, breast screenings to women, annual influenza immunisation, and increased access to dental care. Patients with terminal illnesses are given the option of home nursing instead of hospital care or stay at a nursing home. Last but not least, disabled people can benefit from a Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance, which offers help with personal care and mobility.

Private healthcare

Private healthcare services come at a premium charge, but they offer quicker referrals and a more comprehensive one-to-one treatment in luxurious and modern facilities. However, in the UK, the private healthcare system is still growing and earning popularity gradually. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 85% of UK healthcare expenditure is covered by the government and the remaining 15% by the private sector. Some of the UK’s most well-known private healthcare companies are BUPA, AVIVA (one of the largest insurance companies globally), the French AXA, and Medicare International.

Attention:

Even if you have private health insurance, you may still have to visit an NHS hospital for emergency services.

Good to know:

If you have landed a job in the UK, you may get private health insurance as part of your employment package. Contact your HR department for more information. Wealthier individuals purchase private insurance independently, irrespective of their employer.

Tip:

Find your expat health insurance for your stay in the UK via Expat.com. Have a look at each company’s offers and decide depending on your and your family’s needs. Get a free quote on Expat.com's health insurance for expatriates in the UK page.

Regional healthcare in the UK

As mentioned earlier, healthcare in the UK is managed at the national level, so it does not differ from one region to another. The available healthcare facilities usually depend on where you live. In major cities and surrounding areas, you will find many public hospitals, dentists, drop-in centres, as well as general practitioners. There is always a GP and hospital within reasonable proximity of populated areas in the smaller towns and villages.

Good to know: Add your postal code to the NHS's search tool to find the nearest healthcare facility.

COVID-19 in the UK

At the time of writing, 47.2 million people have received their first dose of vaccination and 40 million their second dose, while daily COVID-19 cases reach 33,074. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions of social distancing being eased, COVID-19 remains a severe health risk, and people are advised to be cautious to protect themselves and others and prevent the spread of the virus. Thus, even though the government revoked the strict measures that were in place for about a year, people are still advised to meet outside, stay at home and take a PCR test if they have any symptoms, wear face masks in crowded places, including the public transport, and wash their hands regularly.

No vaccine is 100% effective. However, all COVID-19 vaccines should offer some degree of protection. Anyone living in the UK has the right to free vaccination against COVID-19, treatment for COVID-19, and testing for COVID-19 in spite of their immigration status and right to (or not to) remain in the country. While it’s advisable to be registered with a GP to access the vaccine against COVID-19, people who don’t have an NHS number or GP registration are still entitled to free COVID-19 vaccinations. They can access walk-in vaccinations or book a vaccination appointment as unregistered patients through a local GP practice.

Good to know:

COVID-19 government guidance has been translated to different languages (e.g. Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Somali, Urdu, etc.). Access the translated documents here. Doctors of the World have also translated information for patients to more than 50 languages. Access the information here.

Attention:

If you are 18 years old or older, book your COVID-19 vaccination appointment online via this link. Your vaccination will take place at a vaccination centre, a pharmacy, a hospital, or a GP surgery.

Useful links:

COVID-19 situation in your area

Book your COVID-19 vaccination (no immigration status is needed)

Healthcare for expats

Expats and their dependents who have a valid visa for a minimum of six months can receive free medical care via the NHS. New expats in the UK should register with a local General Practice (GP) to receive primary care before being referred to a specialist if needed. Note that anyone can register with a GP for free without showing proof of address or immigration status. However, you may not be able to register with the closest to your home GP because many practices have reached their capacity and cannot accept new registrations. Some areas have walk-in centres where you can show at any time within the opening hours without an appointment or registration.

When you register with a GP you will be able to obtain an NHS number after you pass an interview, complete some paperwork, present your National Insurance Number (usually obtained with the biometric residence permit), and demonstrate your residence. Upon completing these steps, your personal NHS number will be sent to you by post or online within a few days. An NHS number is a ten-digit number unique for each patient that helps NHS staff identify patients and match them to their health records. Note that having an NHS number does not mean that you are entitled to free NHS services — you may still have to pay contributions towards the cost of prescriptions, dental care, eye care, etc.

Important:

A GP surgeon can reject adding you to their patient list if they have reached their capacity. If this is the case, you will need to contact the Primary Care Trust in your area to find alternatives. If you need emergency medical help, you should head directly to the hospital.

Important:

You can access NHS services without an NHS number.

Useful links:

Biometric residence permit

Find a GP

Getting your NHS number

European Health Insurance Card

EU citizens used to be covered in the UK through their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), and their health-related costs were charged following the same terms and conditions given to British nationals. Despite Brexit, if you have an EHIC, it will be valid until its expiry date written on the card. But before it expires, you should start the process of replacing it with the new variants: a UK EHIC or UK GHIC (Global Health Insurance Card). To apply for any of these cards, you must live in the UK legally.

The card allows you to access medical healthcare that is necessary, meaning that you cannot postpone your care until you return to your home country. A healthcare provider decides whether your healthcare is medically necessary. Generally, emergencies and accidents, treatments for pre-existing conditions (e.g., chemotherapy), monitoring for pre-existing conditions, maternity care, and kidney dialysis fall under the necessary care category.

Good to know:

The Health Insurance Card is free of charge.

Attention:

The card is not a replacement for travel insurance since it may not cover all costs and does not cover repatriation costs.

Useful links:

European Health Insurance Card

UK EHIC and UK GHIC

Emergency numbers in the UK

In case you need urgent medical attention in the UK, you shall not contact the GP. Instead, go directly to the A&E of the local hospital or call the following emergency numbers:

  • 999 for the police, ambulance services, fire brigade, or coastguard.
  • 111 for urgent medical help via the phone before you are advised to come to the A&E or take some self-care steps.

Tip:

To know what to do in an emergency situation in the UK, please read Expat.com’s article about emergencies in the UK.

Health insurance in the UK

If you need private health insurance in the United Kingdom, there are many insurance companies to choose from.

Some of the leading health insurance providers are:

Consider having a look at their offers according to your needs and get a free quote on Expat.com's Health Insurance for expatriates in the UK page.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.