Healthcare in the UK

Healthcare in the UK is mainly provided by the country's public health provider - the National Health Service (NHS). Established in 1948, the NHS was the first state organisation in the world to provide free healthcare. Today, it is the largest health service in the world providing services such as hospitals, General Practitioners (GPs/doctors), specialists, dentists, chemists, opticians and the ambulance service. The majority of these are free to those who are entitled (see below), but patients pay fixed fees for prescriptions, sight tests, NHS glasses and dental treatment, unless they are exempt for a particular reason.

The state system is supported by private health providers. These offer the opportunity to receive treatment more quickly, always see an expert specialist and be seen in clean and comfortable surroundings. The private health providers are not paid for by the state but through private health insurance or personally.

Those entitled to free or subsidised treatment on the NHS include:

  • Anyone with the right to live in the UK and who currently resides there (excluding British citizens who are resident abroad)
  • Anyone who has been resident in the UK for the previous year
  • EU Nationals
  • Anyone with a British work permit
  • Students on courses longer than six months

In addition, nationals from countries with reciprocal health agreements can also get treatment on the NHS, although this is usually limited to emergencies. (A full list of these countries can be found on the NHS website -

The number of patients using the NHS is huge. On average, it deals with one million patients every 36 hours and each GP sees an average of 140 patients a week. The NHS struggles to cope with these numbers and it is not uncommon to have to wait several months to see a specialist. As a result, many people opt to pay for private health insurance (or have it provided by their employer) to avoid long waiting times for appointments and treatments.

In the UK life expectancy has been rising and infant mortality has been falling since the NHS was established. Both figures compare favourably with other nations.

Staying healthy

No special vaccines are required for travel to the UK although it's a good idea to be up-to-date on routine immunisations. There are no particular diseases that are more prevalent in the UK than in any other country. Tap water is quite safe to drink and, on the whole, you should not have any particular problems with food.

Doctors and hospitals

One of the first things to organise on arrival in the UK is registering with a GP. Some points to consider when making your choice include location and surgery hours, but registering with a GP can also depend on whether the surgery has room for new patients. Family Health Service Authorities (FHSAs) publish lists of doctors in their local areas and lists of GPs can also be found in Yellow Pages. GP surgeries are run on an appointments system, but most offer same day appointments for urgent cases.

In an emergency situation, go to the nearest hospital with an Accident & Emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance. A&E departments can be found at some (but not all) NHS hospitals. Private hospitals do not have A&E facilities. In the UK you will never be refused free emergency treatment. However, if you are hospitalised for more than one night and you are from a country with no reciprocal health agreement, you will be asked to pay for treatment.

Medicines in the UK are supplied in three ways - those that have to be prescribed by a doctor, those that have to be sold under supervision of a pharmacist and those that are freely available.

There are hundreds of private hospitals in the UK. Some are businesses and some are non-profit-making trusts. Some hospital groups provide health insurance plans and some health insurance companies have deals with particular private hospitals groups. Most private care is for specialist referrals although many people choose to pay for private medical care to beat NHS waiting times. If you need treatment, call our international health advisors and we will be able to help you find a doctor or hospital.

Did you know?

The NHS is the fourth-largest employer in the world after the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Indian Railways and Wal-Mart. More than 1.7m people work for the NHS. Of those, just under half are clinically qualified, including 120,000 hospital doctors, 40,000 GPs, 400,000 nurses and 25,000 ambulance staff.



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