Health care in the UK

The English health system has a long and rich history of development. It was established in 1948, is overseen by the Department of Health and is one of the country’s major achievements.

The level of medicine in the UK is at a very high international level. There are many research institutes in the United Kingdom, and new developments are constantly being made in the field of diagnostics and treatment of diseases.

Health care in England is usually divided into two types: NHS – free health care system and private sector (private medicine).

Free healthcare in England

The National Health Service (NHS) is the publicly funded health care system in the UK.

The NHS can be used by all residents of the country: those with citizenship or permanent residence status, and all those who have the right to reside in England.

All foreign nationals holding long-term English visas pay a compulsory medical fee as part of their visa application – in 2024 this is £1,035 per year. The whole amount must be paid in a lump sum at once, for the entire duration of the visa.  Foreigners are then entitled to NHS healthcare in the UK.

This system provides the patient with a wide range of all necessary medical services, with some exceptions in the specific areas of dentistry and plastic surgery. However, free plastic surgery is possible if it is prescribed for medical reasons, for example, after a car accident.

To get NHS health services, you need to register with the NHS and get a personalised number to keep a record of your health history. You will then need to register with a local GP (General Practitioner Practice) in your area.  You will need to fill in a special form called GMS1 and provide proof of your identity and address. A GP appointment usually lasts about 10 minutes, after which the patient will be prescribed certain treatments and, if necessary, a prescription for medication. The cost of a prescription in England is currently £9.65 regardless of the actual cost of the medication. In Scotland, all prescriptions are free.

If you have a more serious health problem, your GP will refer you to another specialist who will arrange the necessary tests or surgery. If there is an emergency, you can call an ambulance or go to any hospital in the UK that has an emergency department. All of these medical services are covered by NHS.

It is worth noting that everyone has the opportunity to call an ambulance free of charge and go to the A&E (Accidents&Emergency) point that exists at each hospital.

However, free medicine has some disadvantages, such as difficulties in waiting for medical care. Due to the large number of patients, there may be long queues for appointments with doctors and various specialists.

Fee-for-service healthcare in England

In addition, paid private medicine is well developed in England, represented by high-class clinics and professional specialists. One of the main advantages of private medicine is the speed of service and a large number of the most advanced additional services.

The most advanced technology is used in fee-for-service medicine, which compares favourably with the NHS.

Health insurance often provides a mechanism for partial payment of the cost of services in the event of an insured event. In the UK, it is also common for many companies to include private health insurance policies as part of their employee benefits packages.

However, it is possible to be insured for one type of medical care only, especially if an operation is urgently required and the waiting list for such a service under an NHS policy is too long.

The most comprehensive, though very expensive, is International Health Insurance. If you buy this health insurance policy, you can go to medical centres, including hospitals, anywhere in the world.

Health services in England for travellers

You should also note that if you are in the UK on a tourist visa and a medical emergency arises, you can go to the nearest hospital or ambulance. Your travel insurance purchased in your country of residence may cover the necessary medical services or, in some cases, there will be a bill to pay for them.

Overall, the UK medical system offers a diverse range of care through the NHS. The private healthcare sector provides alternative options and quick access to healthcare services for a fee.  When choosing between free and fee-for-service healthcare, each person can consider their needs, finances and preferences.

FAQs about health services in England

How do I call a doctor or ambulance in England?

To get any medical help in England, you need to call 111. You will be put through to a medical centre, counselling and, if necessary, an ambulance.

How is the medical system in England organised?

The British health care system is one of the most developed and reliable in the world. It includes free public health care as well as the private sector, among other things, which helps to get faster access to health services. Patient data and health history are stored in an electronic record.

What are the flaws in England's medical system?

Mostly, British patients complain about long queues and the impossibility to make an appointment with a specialist at the earliest possible time. The state is trying to improve this situation in order to provide timely help to everyone who needs it. In addition, the English health care system provides for a conventional division of patients who need urgent care and those who can wait for it.

What medicines can I buy in England without a prescription?

Please note that only medicines for mild colds, nasal congestion, sore throats, coughs, fever and other medicines containing paracetamol are available over the counter in UK pharmacies. More serious medicines, such as antibiotics, can only be bought with a doctor’s prescription.