Health Care in the UK
by J.D. Wollf
The United Kingdom provides health care to residents through the government's National Health Service (NHS). Residents can use these services for free. While the NHS provides free health care to UK residents, that low cost can come with a price: people who want to use specialized services may face a wait and the most advanced treatments may not be covered by the NHS. Out-of-pocket payment and private insurance provide options.
The UK offers universal health care to residents of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The NHS operates government-run health care facilities which are open to the public and funded by taxpayers. The NHS provides free services for its users. These services include emergency care, primary care, specialty services such as eye care and dentistry, and social care. Prescription drugs are available for a fee. The low cost to the patient is one of the positives of the NHS; a 2007 survey of international health care found that only 1 percent of UK residents complained about being unable to pay medical bills.
The NHS came into being in 1948, when the government nationalized previously existing health care services. Before that, patients either directly paid the treating physician, relied on insurance from a "friendly society" (a community organization that might also serve as a bank or provide pensions) or went to a charity or teaching hospital. Some patients were covered by National Insurance, a government program that provided health coverage to people in certain professions.
In the past few years, medical technology has greatly advanced. These advances have posed a problem for the NHS, as it lacks both trained doctors and the money to pay for life-saving, if costly, procedures and treatments. This leads to waiting lists for specialized procedures. The UK has poor rates of cancer survival compared to other European companies. Other highly publicized problems include mixed-sex hospital wards and the spread of the serious bacterial infection MRSA in hospitals. It can also be hard to access dental care through the NHS.
Since 2008, NHS patients can now pay "top-up" fees and receive drugs and treatments that the NHS does not normally provide. (Before 2008, patients who paid for this extra treatment forfeited their right to NHS treatment.) People in the UK can also pay for private insurance. Private insurance can help patients access specialized treatment and can cut down on waiting time.
If you're planning to visit the UK, you'll still have to pay for medical treatment unless you are visiting from a country that has a health care agreement with the UK (see Resources). If you're not eligible, it's best to invest in travel health or medical insurance. Long-term visitors, such as students or overseas workers, may be eligible for free treatment.