The UK's healthcare system is revered across the world, with the country's National Health Service (NHS) a huge source of pride for many.
When you move to a new country to study or work, knowing how you are able to access healthcare should be a top priority. Getting sick is never fun but it can be especially unfortunate when you're in a foreign and unfamiliar environment.
That's why it pays to be aware of your healthcare options in advance, to help take away some of the stress and hassle if you do fall ill.
What Are Your Healthcare Options If You Move to the UK?
In the UK, you can choose from both public (delivered by the NHS) and private healthcare. Let's look at what they both offer and the practicalities around accessing them.
Public Healthcare in the UK
The standard of public healthcare in the UK is often touted as being world-class. For many Americans and citizens of other countries, the thought of completely free healthcare might sound like a utopia, but that's what the UK NHS is famous for.
How is Public Healthcare Delivered in the UK?
- Primary healthcare is largely delivered by General Practitioners (GPs). You'll need to register with a GP surgery when you move to the UK. You can find local GP surgeries online from the NHS website. GPs can then refer patients to a specialist or a hospital if needed.
- Emergencies are dealt with by Accident & Emergency (A&E) departments that operate across many hospitals - similar to Emergency Rooms or ER's in the US. These are for serious injuries and urgent medical attention only, and should not be used for minor medical concerns.
- For minor issues, you can also visit NHS walk-in centers. These don't require pre-booking although you might have to wait for a while before being seen.
Access to the above NHS services is free for all UK residents. However, immigrants and short-term visitors will have to pay a surcharge as part of their visa application in order to access the NHS. The standard surcharge fee is currently:
- £300 per year per person for students and each of their dependents.
- £400 per year per person for everyone else.
Some exclusions do also apply - for example, dental care is usually not free on the NHS, and you will have to pay for most medical prescriptions. You can find plenty of information regarding free and pay for care on the NHS from our previous blog post.
When you move to the UK, you should register with a GP as soon as possible, as this is your primary way to access healthcare. However, you should be aware that waiting times can sometimes be very long, and you may have to wait a couple of weeks for an appointment. If you need to see a doctor urgently you may be able to access the same day "emergency" appointment, but you must be registered with the GP surgery in order to do so.
If you haven't yet had time to register with a GP and you fall ill when you arrive in the UK, you can access an NHS walk-in center instead, although they will likely ask who your GP is and advise that you register as soon as possible.
Private Healthcare Options in the UK
You can also consider accessing private healthcare when moving to the UK. There are many options available and most specialists tend to be located in London. It's worth noting that the level of medical care in the UK is high in both the private and public sector. In fact, many GPs also practice in private clinics as well as working for the NHS.
Private healthcare can be costly in the UK although it generally enables you to access healthcare much quicker, without long waiting times. This is why many UK residents who are entitled to full use of the NHS free of charge also use the private sector.
Costs depend largely on where you are located, which private healthcare provider you use, and the treatment you need. You should compare different clinics and options beforehand, and ask how much the consultation or treatment will cost before going ahead.
You can pay for private healthcare out of your own pocket or take out health insurance. If you do have health insurance, you should check what treatment your plan covers and which private healthcare clinics you can use, as this will vary depending on your level of cover.
Accessing Medicine in the UK
If you require medicine, you can find pharmacies or chemists easily in all major shopping centers and on UK high streets. Even small villages will usually have a pharmacy of some description, although opening hours for these may be limited.
While there are still many independent pharmacies in the UK, many are now inside chain stores such as Boots and Superdrug, offering both prescription services as well as selling over-the-counter medicines. Boots has around 2,500 stores in the UK, while Superdrug has more than 800. Some Boots stores are located near to or within the same building complex as GP surgeries, so collecting prescriptions or following a GP consultation is often quick and easy.
Prescriptions can be written and provided by both the public and the private sector. Prescribed medicines usually must be paid for whether you are an NHS or a private-sector patient, with a few notable exceptions such as the contraceptive pill which is free on the NHS. While there are some variations, overall the cost of medicine in the UK is similar to the US.
Should You Consider Getting Private Health Insurance?
It's worthwhile considering taking out private health cover if you're moving to the UK. It will enable you to bypass NHS waiting times and cover part or in some cases all, of the cost of your private treatment. Some insurance plans will also have added benefits such as access to wellness checks. You could also consider an international health insurance plan which will cover you for treatment both in the UK and when you travel back home or abroad.
If you're moving to the UK to work, UK employers don't have a legal obligation to provide you with health insurance although many employers will offer this as a benefit. If you're relocating from the US but staying with the same company, you could always negotiate private health insurance as part of your relocation package!
Make sure you investigate any health insurance cover that your employer providers, as these can often be only basic plans. You may have the option to pay a little more out of your own pocket to upgrade your employer-provided plan, such as adding dental or dependent cover for your family. If your employer health insurance isn't adequate, you may be able to choose to opt-out or buy your own 'top-up' plan for additional cover.
The cost of private healthcare insurance will depend on your location, any pre-existing conditions, and other factors such as your age and lifestyle. Take some time to compare your options to ensure you find the right health insurance package for your needs.
While public healthcare in the UK provides high-quality care at a low cost, having private insurance cover can give you peace of mind and reassurance that you can access the best quality healthcare when you need it.