Healthcare in the UK

Living in Europe | Health insurance | United Kingdom

In the UK, the primary healthcare service is the NHS. It is a free service provided to legal UK residents. Alongside the NHS, there are also many private care institutions, which offer medical care but often charge for the expedient service.

The National Health Service (NHS)

The NHS is a publicly funded healthcare service provided throughout the UK. It is a system of care which provides a comprehensive range of health services, the vast majority of which are free at the point of use for people legally resident in the United Kingdom.

Each country of the UK operates the NHS in different ways, however the over-arching structure is the same throughout.

Primary Care

Primary care is offered by practitioners ranging from GPs to pharmacists. They are often the first point of contact for patients for any health related issues.

GPs are doctors who deal with the health of the local community. They normally work in GP practices with other doctors, nurses, health visitors and midwives, and visits to the surgery are free to all UK residents.

The GP practice is often the first point of entry for a patient, and if a GP cannot deal with your problem they will refer you to a specialist or to hospital. You need to register with a GP in order to receive care, and will be required to undergo a brief medical examination upon registration.

Dentists offer routine and specialist care for teeth and gums. Most dental practices take a mixture of NHS and private patients.

Even if you are registered as an NHS patient, you will still have to pay some charges for dental treatment unless you are exempt from charges. Contact your local dental practice to find out if you are eligible to receive any exemptions.

Opticians carry out eye and sight examinations. Unless you are entitled to a free eye test (for example if you are under 18, have diabetes or glaucoma, or are claiming certain benefits), you will have to pay for these services.

Pharmacists can advise on minor medical conditions (such as skin allergies), some can offer repeat prescriptions, or prescribe medicine and some offer tests to monitor conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Advice from pharmacists is free but unless you are exempt you will have to pay a charge for prescriptions. In Wales and Scotland, however, prescription charges have been abolished.

Walk-in centres provide quick and easy access to care for minor injuries and complaints, and are often open outside normal surgery hours. You don’t need to make an appointment or register to receive care at a walk-in centre, and treatment is free to all UK residents.

NHS 111 is a telephone and online service providing advice on health issues. It can help you to decide if you need to see a doctor and it can advise you on staying healthy.

The website also has information on various health issues in several different languages, including Arabic, Bengali, French, Gujarati, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Turkish and Urdu.

Secondary Care

Secondary care is usually provided by NHS Foundation Trusts. These are controlled secondary care facilities, including:

  • hospitals
  • mental health care services
  • learning disability care
  • health care
  • social care.

Ambulance services respond to emergencies and are responsible for providing first aid and transport to hospitals. In cases which are not an emergency hospital treatment is arranged through a GP, who will arrange a referral to the relevant department. Appointments and treatment at NHS hospitals are free to UK residents. The emergency services number for the UK is 999.

What about private medical care?

There are private healthcare providers in the UK, and many NHS practitioners also perform services for private patients. These services are more expensive than treatment on the NHS and are often paid for through private medical insurance schemes.

However, in some cases this allows patients to obtain treatment earlier than they would have been able to on the NHS.