The National Health Service (NHS) is the public health care system in the United Kingdom that has been in place since 1948. All residents of the UK, including many temporary residents, are entitled to free (or nearly free) health care through the NHS. However, some employers offer private insurance to their employees as a benefit and individuals who can afford to purchase private health insurance can opt out of Britain's NHS.
Under the NHS, an individual must register with a General Practitioner (GP) doctor. Prior to 2008, those insured under private insurance could consult a doctor of their choosing; those in the NHS could not. GPs could choose not to admit someone to their list unless they lived within a certain distance of their office. However, those covered by NHS now have the right to choose their GP. This also applies to the choice of hospital, with the exception of emergency or urgent care, cancer, maternity and mental health services.
NHS patients usually have to be put on a waiting list for non-emergency hospital procedures while those with private health insurance typically do not. Treatments that require hospitalisation have an average eight-week waiting period; the wait for outpatient procedures is about four weeks, and for diagnostic tests, two weeks.
NHS covers many conditions that private health insurance companies will not, such as pre-existing conditions, GP services, long-term or incurable illnesses, self-inflicted injuries, HIV/AIDS, normal pregnancy and injuries resulting from dangerous hobbies. Private insurance is really designed for curable, short-term illness or injury.
Private insurers require that their policyholder obtain a referral from a GP. The insured is strongly advised to call his private insurance company to confirm that the prescribed treatment is covered. If necessary, the insurer will then send the patient a claim form. There are no claim forms involved with services provided through NHS.
Patients who carry private insurance are usually able to go to private hospitals where they might get more desirable accommodations, such as a private room with a television. Having private health care insurance does not mean, however, that hospital care will be better than at NHS general hospitals. Private insurance policies limit the amount of care they will cover, especially nighttime hospital care.
Having private health insurance does not necessarily mean that the patient will get "private" doctors and specialists. The vast majority of doctors seen by private health care insurance patients are NHS doctors taking in privately insured patients to boost their income.
Medical care through the NHS is provided for free and is paid for though taxes. Private insurance policies must be purchased and can vary widely in price, depending upon the age of the insured and the amount of coverage. Someone who is 45 typically pays 25 per cent more than a 35-year-old, and someone 65 will usually pay more than twice the amount as a 45-year-old.