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Private health insurance vs NHS – which is better?

Curious about the differences between NHS vs private healthcare? Here's all the main facts to help you decide on your best options for care

A photo of Grace Lynch, the author

By Grace Lynch

Published on: 12 October 2023

6 min read

Private health insurance vs NHS – which is better?

Even though you might be fortunate like me to have never really needed to use private healthcare, it can be extremely valuable to have it when the time comes. The NHS has been the subject for several articles in the national press, highlighting the issues it faces with ever increasing waiting lists and patient care challenges.

The burning question for many at the moment is, do I really need private health insurance and does private healthcare replace the NHS? Unfortunately, thousands of patients are struggling to access treatment and care that they need on the NHS which would have been more readily available with health insurance.

In this section I’ll be looking at whether private health insurance is better than the NHS and worth the money. We’ll consider what you actually get with medical insurance compared to what you’d get from the NHS.

QUICK SUMMARY – Private health insurance vs NHS – which is better?

Private health insurance is a policy designed to help you cover the cost of private medical care. A lot of UK consumers are now considering buying private health insurance due to longer NHS waiting lists – but will private healthcare or NHS care work better for you?

  • Almost all treatments and appointments will be free on the NHS, which can be a better option if you have a lower budget – or just don’t want to pay out when there are free options available.
  • Private health insurance can give you access to faster diagnosis, top quality specialists and extra benefits such as gym discounts, free cinema tickets and more.
  • It’s important to weigh up whether the extra benefits included in private health insurance are worth the money that you would spend. If you’re not sure about your options, it can be helpful to speak to a health insurance specialist for more advice and information.

This is a pretty easy question to answer in the sense that the NHS is generally free ‘at point of entry’. While we do technically pay for the NHS through taxes and National insurance, we won’t pay every time we need to use an NHS service.

most of the time the main things you’ll pay with for NHS care would be things like:

  • Prescriptions (Some people may be able to get this free or discounted)
  • Dental healthcare
  • Opticians appointments and glasses

I do think private medical insurance is a good option if you prefer private treatment, as this can help dramatically lower the costs. The main issue is that it might not be an affordable option for everyone, so you should always think carefully about your own situation and if it’s really worth it for you.

You would need to pay out monthly (or yearly) for private health insurance and the amount you pay would be based on factors like:

  • How old you are
  • Where you live
  • Claims history
  • Amount of excess (how much you pay towards the cost of a claim)
  • Level of cover
  • Type of cover (e.g. individual or family policies)
  • Any additional benefits you want to add (e.g.dental care or mental health cover)

Here’s a direct comparison of some of the services and treatments available on the NHS compared to private care:

 NHSPrivate health care
Speed of diagnosisIt can take longer to be seen on the NHS, with waiting lists for specialists.You can be seen by a specialist within a week or even only days after being referred.
Cost of treatmentMost NHS treatments and services will be free. The main exceptions are dental and optical services and prescriptions.You will need to pay for all fees and appointments (either yourself or by using health insurance).
Value for moneyThe NHS offers decent value for money, as services are free but don’t include extra benefits.High level of care available and often include extra perks such as availability of private rooms or wider range of treatments.
Standard of careGood standard of care available and good knowledge among doctors and specialists.Often similar skills and knowledge to NHS services – aren’t always better though facilities may be more comfortable.

I genuinely believe that the NHS health services are one of the best achievements of the UK, having supported millions of people with their health concerns since it was brought into place.

When I look at countries like America, I do hope that the UK doesn’t fully switch to reliance on health insurance plans for medical care. Millions of people in the U.S. end up in mountains of debt due to the extortionate cost of medical care which does feel completely unfair.

Ultimately, in my opinion healthcare should be affordable and accessible no matter how much money you make. Though the NHS is having a hard time at the moment, there are still definite benefits to receiving treatment in NHS hospitals compared to choosing to pay and go private.

Pros of NHS treatment

  • Can provide emergency medical care e.g. A&E
  • Will offer treatment for chronic (long term) medical conditions
  • Shorter waiting times for children
  • Lower treatment costs with FREE healthcare in most cases (may need to pay for prescriptions etc)
  • Private healthcare can often lead to faster diagnosis
  • Knowledge of doctors and hospital treatments are often similar or the same

Cons of NHS treatment       

  • Growing waiting lists for NHS patients
  • Facilities may be newer/better in private hospitals
  • Range of drugs and treatments on offer may be higher if you go private
  • Will not always be able to provide elective or cosmetic surgeries

Honestly whether private health insurance is better than the NHS really is a matter opinion, and the NHS does have private health insurance beat in some areas. The main appeal of the NHS compared to private health insurance is the cost – NHS care is usually free.

Private health insurance works by helping you to pay for the cost of private care, but you have to pay for your policy. This may feel unnecessary for some people who would be happy to stick with the NHS healthcare system which is free at point of entry.

There are some definite perks to opting for private health insurance though that are worth thinking about, the main ones being:

  1. Faster diagnosis – often it’ll be quicker to get diagnosed in a private hospital due to better availability of appointments and a higher chance of one-on-one care
  2. Extra perks – let’s be honest we all love a freebie and certain health insurance providers throw in some great ones. You might be able to get your hands on discount smart watches, gym memberships and more.
  3. Better facilities – private hospitals are more likely to be able to place you in private rooms, offer a wide range of food choices and have generally more comfortable surroundings
  4. More choice of drugs and treatments – only going to be a wider range of treatments available if you choose to go private as private hospitals will tend to have a higher budget to spend.

Yes, you will still be able to use the NHS even if you do have private health insurance so don’t worry. I can definitely understand where the confusion might lie here, but an NHS doctor isn’t going to refuse to treat you because you’ve previously had private care.

How does private healthcare work with NHS?

You can absolutely mix and match private healthcare and NHS care if you want to, which I think a lot of people are unaware of. In fact, there’s actually guidance about this on the energy’s website because of the amount of questions around this topic.

Here’s the important point stated by the NHS guidance:

  1. NHS treatment will still be free even if you’re having private treatment for the same condition
  2. You won’t be asked to pay anything towards your NHS care (except where you would already e.g. prescription charges)
  3. The NHS won’t pay before or paid towards your private hospital fees – which is fair and expected
  4. There needs to be ‘clear separation’ between your private treatment and your NHS treatment. This might sound a bit vague to most people, so the NHS has specified that clear separation means you receive private care at a different time and place from NHS care whenever it’s possible.

How do I buy private health insurance?

If you think you would like to try private medical care and are worried about the cost, private health insurance can help out. These policies are designed to support you in paying for medical treatments with private hospitals and specialists.

There are a lot of different options out there which can make it a bit confusing to work out what policy is the right rules for you. I’d recommend doing proper research and assessing all of your options carefully, so you’re 100% happy with the policy and providing you choose.

If you need extra support or don’t want the hassle of searching yourself, you can talk to health insurance specialist who can easily compare quotes for you.

You can talk to our trusted health insurance partners on 0800 009 6559 or click here.

More useful guides

If you want to learn more about the NHS or private health insurance, you’re in the right place. Check out more of our MPO guides for the best tips and tricks to save money and get the best healthcare.

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