Your guide to health insurance in the UK
The United Kingdom is the destination of choice for many working expats, particularly those from Commonwealth countries. Regardless of where they come from, many will understandably have questions about the country’s healthcare system; who does it cover, how much does it cost, what standard of care can I expect? While there is a very generous public health sector, the National Health System (NHS), many people still choose private health insurance to secure access to Great Britain’s many highly regarded private hospitals.
This brief guide has been written for you to get an understanding of what private health insurance in the UK looks like, and how you can secure the best medical plan for your situation.
Healthcare for expats living and working in the UK
While the country does have the NHS, which has an extensively wide coverage eligibility net, arrivals to the UK should remember that there are four different countries within the union. For the most part, the NHS is the public health provider across the region but there are, however, some variations in the administration and provision of services that differ from country to country. The individual country websites are here for your information:
As is the case for many public health sectors around the world, the NHS is often found to have lengthy wait lists, a reluctance of General Practitioners (GPs) to refer to a specialist, and fees for treatments from dentists (the NHS is heavily subsidized and offers virtually free care for many UK residents and citizens).
This is where private UK health insurance shines. Private hospitals feature the advantage of next to no waiting lists, with many patients able to consult a GP and book in treatment or a surgery as little as 24 hours (or more, in some circumstances). Expert specialists are always on hand for medical advice and support, and you can generally keep the same physician throughout your whole treatment, rather than simply seeing whoever is rostered on that day.
In addition to general care, private health insurance in the UK can also offer a variety of extra benefits; such as coverage for dental, maternity, and vision. For a free quote, check out our online comparison tool here, or see our Health Insurance Options section below for more information.
Types of medical care in the UK
The UK features the common types of care you’d see in many developed nations; inpatient and outpatient care, maternity, dental, and optical treatments are available. GPs often provide primary health care and make referrals to specialists if necessary. Although community pharmacies are privately owned, they will have contracts with their local health service to supply medicine prescribed by doctors.
Hospitals also feature Accident and Emergency departments, and ambulatory services are generally provided free in emergencies by the public sector. These services are supplemented by a number of voluntary organizations, such as the British Red Cross, St Andrews Ambulance Association, and St John Ambulance.
Telehealth is also growing in the UK, with the NHS offering increasing ways of accessing non-emergency medical advice.
Insurance options for the UK
When it comes to paying for medical care in the UK, there are two options available to you; seeking care through the subsidized NHS, or seeking private, non-NHS covered services. Here’s a quick summary of how payment for each works:
The National Health Service (NHS)
As previously mentioned, the NHS is an extensive public health service that provides coverage to the union’s 64.6 million people (including 54.3 million in England alone). Immense is the scale of people supported by the NHS that the system itself deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours, covering everything from antenatal screenings, routine health checks, long-term condition treatments, transplants, emergency treatment, and end-of-life care.
This system is funded by the majority through general taxation and National Insurance. In fact, 98.8% of the funding comes from these sources, with only 1.2% of NHS budgets coming from patient charges. National Insurance contributions are paid by employees and employers through earnings, and other tax revenues (such as Income, Corporation, and Value Added Tax) make up the majority of the NHS’ budget sources.
There are still some out-of-pocket expenses that can occur within the NHS system, and this is generally dependent on the type of treatment you need, as well as your circumstances. For example, prescriptions are free for some people (like under 16 or over 60-year-olds, pregnant women, etc.), while the majority will pay GBP 8.60 per item. Things such as dental treatment, eye tests, travel costs, and wigs for affected cancer patients may also come with a cost.
On the whole, the NHS system provides cheap and accessible medical care of a high standard through national UK health insurance contributions; very similar to the way other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand provide care.
Private health insurance in the UK
The UK is home to a number of globally recognized insurance providers and carriers, such as Bupa, AXA, Allianz, and Cigna. There are also a number of smaller, local insurers that offer private coverage in the union as well. On the whole, people can expect that a policy bought in the UK will provide coverage for all of the countries of the union unless it is an international health insurance plan providing global coverage.
Basic private medical insurance will generally cover the costs of most inpatient treatments, as well as day care surgery. In addition to simple inpatient plans, consumers can also include outpatient benefits, coverage for maternity, dental and vision, as well as a host of other health and wellbeing related benefits, dependent on your needs. These plans can be comprehensive, standalone products, or can act as a top-up to NHS coverage.
Getting private UK health insurance widens your access to medical services in the country. While the NHS does provide extensive coverage at public facilities, there are some benefits that private health insurance does better:
Reduced wait times: Everything from referrals to a specialist, access to the type of scan you want, and physiotherapy sessions are much easier and faster to come by when you have private health insurance. The average NHS wait is six weeks; private hospitals can arrange for you to be seen as soon as your insurer approves coverage, which can be as soon as a few hours.
Private rooms: Private insurance often grants its policyholders access to private or semi-private rooms, making waiting for treatment or recovery a much more comfortable experience than in a six-bed, mixed-sex open ward. Private hospital rooms can come with extensive entertainment options, guest facilities for companions, free WIFI, and the privacy you might need during a vulnerable time.
Specialist drugs and treatments: Because the NHS needs to weigh up new treatment success against the spending of public money, sometimes you might not have access to the more innovative and groundbreaking drugs and treatments on offer around the world. There are even some cases of particular drugs, for things like diabetes treatment, not being offered in certain postcodes (see: the postcode lottery). Private health insurance can provide the funds to cover some of the more expensive non-general treatments that the NHS has not yet approved.
Choose your doctor and hospital: In many circumstances, UK private health insurance holders can choose the doctor or specialist they want to use for treatment, and the hospital or facility they want to seek treatment from. This is not possible in the NHS where doctors work on rosters and patients are generally admitted to their nearest, local hospital.
Private health insurance costs, however. If you consider that National Insurance contributions are mandatory, many people may not see a benefit in paying “twice” for healthcare in the UK. As with most public health systems, however, there are gaps and challenges that can make seeking care more difficult than it needs to be. Securing a comprehensive or top-up UK health insurance policy can sometimes make all the difference.
Deciding which UK health insurance options is right for you
Considering the solid options for healthcare in the UK, there’s really no single right answer for everyone. Understanding your own situation and needs is the best way to know whether or not you need public or private health insurance. When it comes to that discussion, one of the best decisions you can make is to engage the services of an experienced UK health insurance broker.
Pacific Prime has been delivering medical insurance solutions for people around the world for nearly 20 years. We’ve got solid partnerships with many local insurers, as well as all of the major industry giants that operate in the UK and around the world. With us, you’ll have access to the best plans available and, in addition to great products, you’ll also have access to our unparalleled service and claims support too.