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Private healthcare vs the NHS

Private healthcare vs the NHS

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Last updated: 08 November 2021

The NHS is one of the most revered institutions in the UK. Free at the point of use is, and will always be, a cornerstone of the National Health Service. However, more and more people are turning to private healthcare not just for elective treatment, but for their full healthcare services. This guide will take you through all you need to know about the private healthcare system and the NHS, where they overlap, and where you might want to choose one or the other. 

Why not the NHS?

The NHS is considered by many to be the UK’s greatest achievement. Free at the point of use healthcare was, and still is, one of the pillars of our society. However, YouGov polling has shown that nearly 4 in 10 people believe that the NHS ‘will not survive in its current form to the end of the current decade.’ It is for this reason that many, who can afford it, are now considering moving towards private health insurance

Are we private already?

There has been a growing trend of outsourcing NHS procedures which means in some instances we are actually private already. There are now blurred lines between the NHS and private healthcare, whereby you may be referred from your GP to a private hospital or doctor, but the services will still be free at the point of use. It’s currently your right to be able to choose who treats you in the UK. This means that in some cases, after asking a few of the right questions, you can be moved to a private hospital despite paying no more money. 

Key differences between private healthcare and the NHS

Despite the lines being blurred, there are still a few key differences between private and NHS healthcare:


In most cases, you will need to pay for private healthcare. This is often done through an insurance policy. Here, you will first need to be diagnosed by a GP who will write you a referral letter, either for a specific doctor or hospital, or just an open letter which describes your illness. Once that is done, you will contact your insurer and get a pre-approved claim to see your private healthcare professional. The insurer will then pay this for you, minus the voluntary excess that you have agreed to. For instance, if your treatment costs £500 and you have an excess of £100, you will pay £100 directly to the hospital or doctor and your insurance company will pay the rest.

Waiting Times

The most common reason for moving to a private healthcare facility is the waiting times. In private healthcare, you can normally have your pick of appointments to see a GP, even the next day! Whereas it can be difficult to get a next day appointment with your GP on the NHS and latest figures have shown nearly 400,000 people are waiting the maximum 18 weeks for a referral. 

Comfort and Privacy 

In general, with private healthcare you are getting what you paid for. This means that you will get private, relaxing and high-quality room in a private hospital. There will be no restrictions on visiting hours and the food will be of a higher quality. 


Private healthcare in the UK is usually reserved for specialist elective treatment, such as cosmetic surgery. It will also offer some services such as physiotherapy that are not available on the NHS. However, generally the NHS has a much wider range of treatment options available when suffering from a serious illness, but this also depends on the insurance policy cover you have. It’s particularly relevant if you are suffering from a pre-existing chronic condition, which will usually not be covered on private health insurance due to their restrictions on pre-existing conditions


Whilst private healthcare might seem like a good option, it’s the cost that holds most people back. The NHS is free at the point of use 365 days a year, so despite waiting times, if it’s a minor illness it will definitely be worth using their services. There is no ‘one’ price when it comes to private healthcare as it will vary depending on your policy, and it’s ‘pay as you go’ approach. 

Cutting Edge / Experimental Treatment 

There are certain treatments and experimental drugs that might be available on private healthcare that is not offered on the NHS. It is always important to consult with your GP and they will inform your options. 


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Fergus Cole

Author: Fergus Cole

Fergus is a journalist specialising in the personal finance, energy and broadband sectors. He also has a passion for travel and adventure so tries to make the most of this in any spare time he gets.

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