Our health is often something we give little thought to until we, or our loved ones, become ill. Most of us know about the NHS (National Health Service) and its vital role in treating our physical and mental health problems and keeping us well, but not much beyond that. For instance, many people have less idea about the private healthcare sector and why they may want to choose to be treated privately if they become ill or are considering cosmetic surgery.

We often give little thought to our health until we, or our loved ones, become ill.

Most of us will be familiar with the crucial role the NHS (National Health Service) plays in maintaining public health through accessible, government-funded care.

However, fewer people are aware of the private healthcare sector, which can offer a valuable alternative with its own set of unique benefits.

This guide outlines all you need to know about private healthcare in the UK and answers some of the specific questions people often ask – from what it is to how it differs from the NHS. 

What is private healthcare?

In the UK, private healthcare is care provided outside of the NHS. This means individuals who choose private treatment must pay for it through health insurance or out of their own pocket.

Several private healthcare providers run independent hospitals and employ thousands of consultant doctors, supported by nurses and other healthcare workers, to carry out diagnostic tests and medical and cosmetic procedures.

To learn more, our explainer animations offer a quick and easy way to learn more about private healthcare. They tell you where you can access it and how our Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN) team can help.

How does private healthcare work?

Private healthcare isn’t intended to replace the NHS. Instead, it offers alternative and additional options to people with medical conditions who want to access healthcare at a time that suits them or choose their doctor or hospital.

For example, as well as inpatient private hospital treatments, such as hip replacements, knee replacements and cataract procedures, private healthcare also encompasses various outpatient services, diagnostics and therapies that may be less easily accessible through the NHS.

What are the main differences between private healthcare and the NHS?

Private healthcare and the NHS serve different purposes. The NHS provides comprehensive healthcare free at the point of use and funded through our taxes. In contrast, either the patient or insurance pays for private healthcare.

Here are some other key differences between the two:

  • Cost: NHS care is tax-funded, whereas private healthcare requires direct payment or an insurance policy to cover the costs.
  • Access: Private healthcare typically offers faster access to treatment and more convenient appointment times, avoiding the need to join long waiting lists.
  • Choice: Private patients will receive more choices over their doctor, hospital and proposed treatments, which can benefit patients with specific medical needs or preferences.
  • Facilities: Private hospitals may offer better facilities than the NHS, such as private rooms, a wider choice of food and more comfortable waiting rooms.

For these reasons, many individuals choose private healthcare for the speed, choice and comfort it can offer, and the access to treatments and procedures unavailable on the NHS, such as certain cosmetic surgeries.

What are the funding options for private healthcare?

It’s essential to understand the differences between the various ways UK private healthcare is funded before deciding which one is right for you.

The main funding options offered typically include:

  1. Private medical insurance: This covers all or part of private treatment costs. However, policies can vary widely, so double-checking what yours covers is vital.
  2. Self-pay: This option allows you to pay directly for treatment without a private insurance policy.
  3. Company-funded schemes: Some employers offer private healthcare as part of their benefits package, so it’s important to check what’s available to you.

You can learn more about these funding options on our website’s dedicated help and advice section.

Is private healthcare expensive?

In a word, yes. Private healthcare can be costly, especially if you’re paying out of your pocket rather than through private medical insurance or a company-funded scheme.

When using the NHS, our taxes have paid for treatment costs, so we don’t see the bill. In comparison, the costs associated with private healthcare are visible and can vary depending on factors like the treatment required, your state of health and the hospital’s location.

So, it's crucial to research all the costs involved before you commit to a treatment. Even using private medical insurance, you should always check with your insurer to see what your policy covers.

Some hospitals will display a ‘package price’ covering the cost of your treatment, for example. You should always check what your healthcare provider includes as part of their package price.

One hospital may also include all the fees for tests, treatment, follow-up appointments, aftercare and physiotherapy, while another hospital won’t. Be vigilant and double-check what’s covered.

How do I choose the right private healthcare provider?

When selecting a private healthcare provider, it’s essential to research and ask specific questions before committing yourself. Check for answers to questions like:

  • Are they officially registered? Your private healthcare provider should be registered with a national regulator, such as the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in England, Healthcare Improvement Scotland, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales or the Quality Improvement Authority (Northern Ireland). These organisations inspect, regulate and rate the quality and safety of healthcare services across the NHS and private hospitals. You can read more about this in our guide to healthcare regulator ratings.
  • What is their reputation? Take the time to research your provider’s reputation by reading reviews and testimonials from other patients, as you would when purchasing any product.
  • Do they specialise in anything? Choose a provider with expertise in the specific treatment or procedure you need.
  • Are they transparent about their costs? Private healthcare can be expensive, so it’s helpful to understand all the costs involved by researching their package pricing.

If I have private healthcare, can I still use the NHS?

Private healthcare in the UK does not cover emergency medical treatment, and some treatments (such as vaccination or screening programmes) may only be available through the NHS. Private healthcare patients can still use the NHS like anyone else for emergency treatment or services not available privately. 

Private patients can also 'mix and match' both diagnosis and treatment, moving between the NHS and private sector. For example we know of patients who have had one cataract operation on the NHS and the other in the private sector. 

Where can I learn more about private healthcare?

Private healthcare in the UK can offer faster access to treatment and more choice, but it can also be expensive and may not suit everyone.

So, it’s vital to carefully research your options and make your decision based on your needs and circumstances.

For more help understanding private healthcare and your options, including how to pay or the procedures you might undergo, visit our dedicated help and advice page. Our wide selection of guides will answer any further questions you might have.

Alternatively, use the search bar at the top of our homepage to learn more about the consultants and hospitals that can provide you with private healthcare.

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