Healthcare in the UK
Understanding the fundamentals
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Healthcare plans designed specifically for expatriates and local nationals living in the UK.
Public healthcare in England
Public healthcare in England is administered by the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS provides all levels of healthcare, from community healthcare to hospital care. Most services through the NHS are free, with a few notable exceptions such as prescriptions, optometry and dentistry.
Citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) can access free treatment, but those from outside the EEA will only have the right to access the NHS for free once they obtain an immigration status of ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (similar to permanent residency).
Non-EEA citizens moving to the UK for more than six months are required to pay an immigration health surcharge during the visa application process. This gives access to free and subsidised NHS services for one year.
Everyone using the NHS needs to have an NHS number, which is assigned when a patient registers with a local General Practitioner (GP). The GP is the first port of call for general medical needs and will refer a patient to a specialist if need be.
Private healthcare in England
Private healthcare is also available in England. Quality of treatment is generally equal to that in the NHS, but there are numerous other benefits to using private healthcare. For instance, private patients are seen immediately without waiting lists, can see specialists without a GP referral and are given a guaranteed admission date.
However, private healthcare is extremely pricey, so those who would prefer it to public healthcare are advised to consider international health insurance while in England.
Pharmacies and medicines in England
Emergency medical services in England
In an emergency, dial 999 for an ambulance. Response times are fast in urban areas but there may be a longer waiting time in very remote areas. Ambulance services will take the patient to the nearest hospital’s A&E (Accidents & Emergencies). Wait times in A&E can be lengthy.
If expats are in need of advice about a time-sensitive medical matter or are unsure whether a trip to A&E is necessary, they can call the NHS 24-hour medical advice helpline on 111. Trained professionals can give callers advice and connect them to a variety of resources.
Healthcare in Scotland
With its gorgeous highlands, shimmering lochs and ancient castles, Scotland has a lot to offer. Friendly locals make it easy to feel at home in the birthplace of William Wallace, and there’s plenty to see and do throughout the country.
The healthcare system is relatively simple and easy to use, and most expats will qualify for free and subsidised care.
The National Health Service (NHS) is the backbone of public healthcare throughout the UK and was initially conceived as a universal healthcare system. However, as each of the UK’s four countries are free to adapt the system, there are cross-border variations in policies. In Scotland, for instance, prescribed medication is free of charge, which is not the case in any of the other three UK nations.
Public healthcare in Scotland
The majority of hospitals in Scotland are public hospitals, all of which have excellent facilities, up-to-date equipment and highly trained staff. The quality of care in public hospitals is just as good as in private hospitals, with many doctors working in both sectors.
The first port of call for most medical issues is the General Practitioner (GP). Once registered with the NHS, expats can choose a GP in their local area. To receive specialist treatment, patients need to see their local GP first for a referral. Waiting times for specialist appointments for non-emergency care or elective surgery can be long.
Private healthcare in Scotland
There are a few private hospitals in Scotland, all with a high standard of care. While the NHS is sufficient for most needs, private healthcare can be useful for avoiding the long waiting times associated with public healthcare, undergoing elective procedures not covered by the NHS, and making appointments to see specialists directly without the need of a reference from a GP.
Private healthcare is far from cheap though, and expats planning on making use of the private sector should take out a comprehensive insurance policy to cover costs.
Health insurance in Scotland
Pharmacies and medicines in Scotland
Pharmacies are easy to find, including chain and independent outlets. Normal pharmacy hours are from around 8am to 6pm, Monday to Saturday. Some pharmacies have extended opening hours and late-night services.
Emergency services in Scotland
The NHS provides high-quality emergency treatment, but waiting times in A&E (Accidents & Emergencies) can be long.
In the event of a medical emergency, dial 999 for an ambulance. Ambulances usually have a fast response time for urban areas, but callers from very remote areas will have a longer waiting time.
Healthcare in Wales
Wales has grown in popularity as an expat destination thanks to its good work-life balance and outdoor lifestyle. As part of the wider National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, Wales has a good reputation when it comes to healthcare.
For expats who are willing to pay, the private sector also provides excellent services and allows users to bypass waiting lists for treatment.
Public healthcare in Wales
Registering with a local GP should be a priority for expats when moving to Wales, as an NHS number is allocated through a local doctor. This number will allow expats access to free or subsidised public healthcare in the UK.
Expats from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) should be aware that they will need to pay a health surcharge as part of their visa application if they plan to stay longer than six months. Payment of this fee grants expats access to all NHS services.
When it comes to seeking medical treatment in the UK, the local GP is generally the first point of contact. If specialist treatment is needed, the GP will provide a referral.
The NHS funds almost all medical services but some, such as dentistry and optometry, aren’t covered. For these, expats will have to pay out of their own pockets or rely on private health insurance. However, NHS dentists offer the basics at a much lower rate than private dentists. There are also many people who qualify for free eye tests through the NHS.
Long waiting times for specialist appointments and elective surgery procedures are common.
Private healthcare in Wales
Private hospitals and clinics in Wales are expensive, but the medical services offered are of a high standard. Though pricey, the private sector is useful for those wishing to skip long waiting times associated with the NHS.
If expats plan to use private healthcare services in Wales, it is highly recommended that they invest in a comprehensive private health insurance plan to cover the costs.
It’s important to note that not all private hospitals are equipped for emergencies. Expats who rely solely on private institutions should ensure that they know where their closest accident and emergency department is located, and this may well be at an NHS hospital.
Pharmacies and medicines in Wales
Pharmacies and chemist shops in Wales are plentiful. Prescribed medication is covered by the NHS in Wales, which is not the case in England. Most pharmacies are well stocked and pharmacists are able to give general medical advice about minor ailments.
Late-night pharmacies can be found in and around major cities, some of which operate on a rota.
Emergency services in Wales
All visitors to the UK are entitled to free emergency treatment, but foreign patients will be charged for any medical services following the direct emergency.
The emergency number in the UK is 999. Ambulances are well prepared for almost every medical emergency.
Non-emergency medical advice is available through NHS Wales on 111, which patients can call for medical advice.
Healthcare in Northern Ireland
While Northern Ireland shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, it is officially part of the United Kingdom and this affects how healthcare in the country is administered. The quality of public healthcare in Northern Ireland is generally good with free medical treatments available to all legal residents.
Public healthcare is provided by Health and Social Care of Northern Ireland (HSC), a branch of the National Health Service (NHS). While the HSC is run separately from the NHS, many of its features are shared. Other medical services are also available to expats willing to pay the high fees associated with private healthcare.
Public healthcare in Northern Ireland
To receive medical treatment in Northern Ireland, expats will need a medical card from the HSC. This will be issued when registering with a General Practitioner (GP) for the first time. Expats might need to present their passport and visa to a GP to show that they qualify. Nationals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) will also have to pay a surcharge on top of their visa fees to access public healthcare.
A GP will most likely be an expat’s primary link with the HSC. These professionals are well versed in general medical queries, and offer referrals to specialists when needed.
As is the case throughout the UK, public healthcare doesn’t include funding for dental or eye care. Expats might want to consider taking out private health insurance to cover themselves for services that fall outside their public healthcare entitlement.
Private healthcare in Northern Ireland
Private medical facilities in Northern Ireland are of a high standard. Usually, these institutions offer specialised medical services, or services that are not covered by the HSC. Private healthcare can be expensive, so private health insurance is a good idea. Policies can range from supplementary cover that includes dental and eye care, to comprehensive policies covering most treatments at a private facility.
Expats should take note of where their closest emergency unit is located, as not all private hospitals are equipped to deal with emergencies.
Pharmacies and medicines in Northern Ireland
Pharmacists in Northern Ireland can provide basic medical advice, sell over-the-counter medication and fill prescriptions. Expats should keep in mind that seeing a pharmacist for minor ailments can be as useful as visiting a doctor.
Most hospitals and some doctor’s offices have pharmacies located on site for convenience. Expats will also be able to find a number of late-night and extended-hours pharmacies in most major cities, some of which operate on rotas.
Emergency services in Northern Ireland
Ambulances in Northern Ireland are generally well equipped and staffed with trained professionals. Dialling 999 connects callers to the general emergency line where their situation will be assessed. Visitors will get free emergency treatment, but any follow-up treatment will be billed.
For broken bones, minor concussions, sprains and other non-emergency medical issues, consider visiting the Minor Injury Unit, where waiting times can be shorter.