The UK is high up on the list of countries with the best medical care, as healthcare in the UK is one of the most affordable for patients in the world. If you’re moving to the UK then signing up for health insurance should be on your list of things to do when you move.

Understanding the UK healthcare system and NHS

Healthcare in the UK is the responsibility of the National Health Service (NHS). Founded in 1948, it is a publicly funded organisation designed to provide basic healthcare for all UK residents.

NHS Services include medical care at doctor’s surgeries (medical offices) or at hospitals, treatment of physical or mental handicaps, dental care and eye tests at opticians.

NHS services including visits to doctors and hospital care are free to UK residents. It does not provide free healthcare for everyone, as the service is paid from mandatory taxes taken from the earnings of people living and working in the UK. However, you do not have to pay upon each visit to your GP (general practitioner).

Emergency medical services in the UK

In an emergency such as an accident, every person is treated free of charge, regardless of nationality or health insurance status. If extended treatment is required, or a lengthy hospital stay, non-UK residents who are not eligible for free healthcare would then be required to pay.

Many countries have reciprocal medical insurance arrangements covering such costs.

There are some charges that have to be paid by everyone, whether a UK resident or not. These include most prescription charges, payment for glasses, and a contribution to adult dental charges. Oral contraception is currently free of charge in the UK.

Who can access free healthcare in the UK?

Free healthcare within the NHS is available to:

  • British citizens resident in the UK
  • People who have been resident in the UK for 12 months or more
  • People who possess a British work permit
  • Foreign students studying for more than six months in the UK
  • EU nationals living in the UK
  • Nationals from the 30 countries forming the European Economic Area, also Anguilla, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Bulgaria, Channel Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, New Zealand, Romania, Russia, St. Helena, Switzerland, Turkey and the Caicos Islands.

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Signing up for healthcare in the UK

To access medical healthcare with the NHS, it is essential to register with a doctor known as a GP. This is generally the nearest surgery (doctor’s office) to your home. Dental care is provided by dentists from their own clinics.

To find a GP or a dentist, you can use the NHS service search; alternatively local directories will contain a list of surgeries. Proof of identity and confirmation of your address may be required.

Following registration, you will be able to make appointments to see a GP or a dentist. If midwifery care (OB GYN) is required, the GP is the first point of contact.

Prescription medicine and pharmacies in the UK

Basic medicines such as aspirin or paracetamol (generic names for Tylenol or Advil) can be purchased at any pharmacy. These can be easily identified by the green cross logo on their windows and signs. A pharmacy will also dispense medicines from prescriptions written by doctors, dentists, or hospital clinics.

Cost of prescriptions in the UK

There is a standard charge of $10.20 for each single prescription, rather than different costs per prescription in other countries such as the US.

Prepayment certificates (PPC) can be obtained if you need a large number of prescriptions throughout the year, thus reducing the cost involved. Contributions to the cost of dental treatment, sight tests, glasses and/or contact lenses may be required.

There are some exceptions to these charges such as children under the age of 16 or in full-time education up to the age of 18. Medical practitioners may also issue exemption certificates for reasons such as pregnancy or disability.

Assessing hospital and A&E as an expat in the UK

Hospitals and Accident and Emergency (A&E) facilities are situated in every town and city within the UK. However, not all hospitals will possess Accident and Emergency cover. Some hospitals specialize in certain sectors such as paediatrics – the Great Ormond Children’s Hospital in London is a good example of this.

Hospitals in the UK

Most hospitals will provide both outpatient and inpatient care covering all medical and physical conditions. To access hospital care, you must first go to a GP who will assess your condition and refer you to the appropriate clinic or specialist. Opticians who identify serious eye problems will refer you to a GP or hospital.

Emergency care in the UK

An A&E department is often described as casualty or an emergency department. Its function is purely to deal with life-threatening emergencies such as serious accidents, severe allergic reactions, severe bleeding, and severe chest pains.

Less severe injuries are treated at GP surgeries or NHS walk-in centers that can be found in most towns. Dialing 999 for an ambulance or paramedic can access emergency treatment in life threatening situations, such as a road traffic accident.

Private healthcare in the UK

Private medical and dental care is available. The NHS does seek to care for everyone, but pressure on resources mean that waiting lists to see specialists can be long. As a result, many people choose to purchase private health insurance so as to avoid delays. This can also provide extra comfort such as private rooms in hospitals.

The main private insurers within the UK are BUPA, AXA PPP Healthcare, Norwich Union, Standard Life, Freedom Healthnet, HSA and General & Medical. Taking out a private medical insurance policy involves regular payments. These payments do not replace the NHS tax paid by all UK residents, but are in addition to that charge.