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NHS vs Private Healthcare

The choice between using the NHS or private healthcare is more than just a financial decision. Find out why.

Comparing NHS and Private Healthcare

Wondering whether to opt for NHS or private healthcare? At Freedom Health Insurance we are passionate about patient choice and want to help people better understand the differences between the NHS and private healthcare.

Since its launch in 1948, the National Health Service (NHS) has grown to become one of the world’s largest publicly funded health services and its quality of care is recognised internationally. Nevertheless, because of the increasing pressure on the NHS and the difficulties it has experienced in recent years, many people have shifted towards private medical treatment, very often using private health insurance to cover their costs. As a result, according to the research organisation Laing Buisson, the UK’s private healthcare market has grown to over £6.3bn in 2017.

NHS vs Private Healthcare Waiting Times

Whenever you are looking for medical advice or need to seek treatment for a medical condition, you usually book an appointment with your NHS GP. Depending on the number of people registered with the same GP practice, this can take up to two weeks or even longer.

Wait times vary by speciality and region, and whilst the Government set targets to shorten these, the system still struggles to cope, especially for routine procedures such as hip replacements. However, in most cases, the NHS usually provides timely and world-class interventions for life critical issues such as cardiac bypasses.

With most private health insurance plans, you can now access a virtual GP and some even give you the option to choose a private GP. This means that you could be seen faster and get your treatment underway more promptly, allowing you to get the medical treatment you need, when you need it.

Comfort in the NHS vs Private Healthcare

The quality of medical treatment itself should be the same for both NHS and private healthcare, however private healthcare facilities can be more comfortable and modern. While undergoing private treatment you are likely to have hotel-like facilities and services which may include private accommodation, ensuite bathroom, TV and a greater choice of food. You will usually benefit from non-restricted visiting hours and you are more likely to be seen by the same consultant.

In comparison, on the NHS, you may find yourself in a mixed ward, with shared bathroom and limited visiting hours and you may be seen by a member of the consultant’s team rather than the consultant themselves.

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NHS vs Private healthcare: ​Choice of Hospital, Treatment and Location

Private healthcare has the advantage of giving you a choice of hospital and treatment at a time and location that is convenient for you. In private care, you are usually seen within a week or so of your GP requesting a referral, and tests are arranged within a few days.

With the NHS on the other hand, you have a limited choice and the waiting lists for seeing a specialist can be very lengthy. So, if you’re debating whether to opt for NHS or private healthcare treatment and flexibility is of utmost importance to you, you should consider the typical waiting times and choices of hospitals that will best suit your needs.

NHS vs Private Treatment and Drugs

Due to the cost of some niche drugs, the NHS may not pay for them. Therefore, patients may need to refer to private healthcare to access those drugs.

However, the type of treatments you have access to with private health insurance depends on the level of cover and benefits chosen. Some complex treatments may not even be available privately and have to be done on the NHS.

The Cost of Private Healthcare vs the NHS

The NHS provides free treatment to millions of people across the UK.

To access private healthcare, you can either do it as a self-pay patient, where you finance your treatment from your own pocket or use a private medical insurance plan that pays for your private care. While the first option can become expensive very quickly, getting a health insurance plan can be more affordable than you think.

Medical insurance companies, including Freedom Health Insurance, allow you to tailor your plan by choosing only the health benefits you need. Then you can further reduce your costs by choosing different excess amounts, by paying annually or even by choosing a 2-year fixed premium (available through Freedom Health Insurance) which guarantees that your price won’t increase in the first year of renewal even if you make a claim. Terms and conditions apply. Find out more about how your premium is calculated.

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Mixing NHS Treatment and Private Treatment

The private healthcare system should not be seen as a replacement to the NHS, but a complementary service that works alongside the public health system, for several reasons:

  • Accident & Emergency (A&E) services are only offered by the NHS as most private hospitals don’t have the facilities to offer A&E services.
  • Chronic conditions. If you have private medical insurance in place, this will most likely not cover chronic conditions. This means that if you want to access private healthcare for these conditions, you will have to do this as a self-pay patient which can lead to expensive medical bills mounting up very quickly. The NHS provides this service free of charge.
  • Healthcare for children. Although many health insurance policies give you the option to add your children to your policy, the NHS already offers immediate priority to children, meaning that the waiting times are much shorter than for adults.

Using a private health insurance policy to pay for your private treatment will not affect the NHS healthcare you already have access to.

Along with conventional private medical insurance, new and innovative insurance products designed for cost-conscious people to work alongside the NHS care are essential. For this reason, we have created Freedom Essentials which puts you, the patient, in greater control of how you spend your money.

Private Treatment & Operations at NHS Hospitals

NHS specialist hospitals usually have excellent intensive care (ITU) facilities, and whilst these may not be needed for routine procedures, some patients like to have peace of mind.

Although there are some larger specialist private hospitals in London, even these often lack 24x7 ITU. It is a little-known fact that if a private patient becomes critically unwell in many private hospitals, the patient is likely to be transferred back to a public NHS hospital for emergency care. The NHS has many specialist hospitals that are world leaders in areas such as cancer, cardiac and paediatric care.

The NHS private wards are there to make money for the hospital/NHS, but they are not ‘profit-making’ in the true sense. Thus, NHS private units/wards can often offer treatment at a lower cost than a private hospital. This is achieved by using NHS operating theatres and staff, while at the same time allowing you the benefit of consultant-led healthcare and a private room.

More innovative private insurance plans now offer incentives to patients that keep their treatment costs lower. For example, our Freedom Essentials health cover pays a cash benefit for each approved medical procedure which you can use towards your treatment and keep any surplus or top up as required.

NHS Patients Requesting Treatment in Private Hospitals

NHS patients can request medical treatment in a private hospital. Patient Choices was introduced by the government to increase the competition and choices available.

Your GP may simply refer you to a consultant they know in the NHS. However, it is currently your right to choose where you are treated, and some may find that by asking a few questions they can receive an NHS funded operation in a private hospital. In theory, this could be in a shared room, but in practice, the experience is often identical to the private patient, except a few menu choices and perhaps a fee to use the TV.

Access private healthcare

To access private healthcare, you can either do it as a self-pay patient, where you finance your treatment from your own pocket, or use a private medical insurance plan that pays for your private care. While the first option can become expensive very quickly, getting a health insurance plan can be more affordable than you think. Visit the About Private Healthcare page to find out more about getting treated privately.

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Reduce your premium

Medical insurance companies, including Freedom Health Insurance, allow you to tailor your plan by choosing only the health benefits you need. Then you can further reduce your costs by choosing different excess amounts, by paying annually or even by choosing a 2-year fixed premium (available through Freedom Health Insurance) which guarantees that your price won’t increase in the first year of renewal even if you make a claim. Terms and conditions apply.

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NHS vs private healthcare FAQs

Are GPs private or part of the NHS?

There are GPs who work for the NHS as well as private GPs. Whilst you are usually registered with an NHS GP who you can see for free when needed, private GPs will charge for appointments. However, the benefit of a private GP is that you can be seen quicker and avoid the often long NHS waiting times.

Is the NHS a public or private organisation?

The NHS is a publicly funded healthcare system in England. This means that it is an organisation run by the government and is funded by taxpayer’s money.

What is private healthcare?

The private healthcare sector is made up of hospitals and treatment centres which run independently from the NHS. When you choose to receive private healthcare, you are responsible for any fees payable and the NHS doesn’t subsidise any of these private healthcare costs.

How much is private healthcare?

The cost of private healthcare can really vary across treatment centres but you may find more affordable options within NHS hospitals as they may have a private clinic/wing which provides private healthcare. Private healthcare can get expensive so it may be worth investing in a private health insurance plan to make it more affordable for you and your family. You can find out how much you could be paying for private health insurance or get a health insurance quote now.

How does private healthcare work?

In the UK, there are a number of private healthcare facilities where you could receive private medical treatment or specialist advice, but you should do some research before deciding on the best private hospital provider for your needs.

You can access private healthcare by:

  • Going through your private health insurance policy bought by yourself.
  • Using the private health insurance plan provided by your employer - you can learn more about business insurance here.  
  • Paying for private medical treatment directly.
  • Taking out a medical loan (this is provided by some private hospitals and treatment centres).

What is NHS healthcare?

The National Health Service (NHS) is the publicly funded healthcare system in the United Kingdom. Essentially, everyone lawfully resident in the UK can register and access the NHS services when they become ill or injured. NHS treatment is "free at the point of use", which means that everyone registered with the NHS can receive critical and non-critical medical care without payment in most circumstances.

Am I entitled to NHS healthcare?

According to the government website, primary medical care (ie. GP and nurse consultations and GP treatment) is available free of charge to all whether UK resident or not. However, secondary medical care services (i.e. specialist consultations & treatment, diagnostic tests) are only available for free to people who are living lawfully in the UK on a settled basis. You may still be able to access these services even if you don't have 'indefinite leave to remain' by paying a fee.

For more information please see the NHS  entitlements: migrant health guide.

Can I use the NHS if I have private healthcare?

Even if you choose to pay for private healthcare, you can still use the NHS healthcare services if you are entitled to.