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The UK Healthcare System

The UK healthcare system is one of the best in the world. No system is perfect and there are well publicised examples of when things go wrong but published statistics for 2008 reveal what the UK healthcare system manages to achieve compared to that in the US:

  • Per head of the population, the UK healthcare system spends $8.4 million compared to the US spend of $15.7 million, but still provides a similar number of doctors, more nurses and more hospital beds per hundred thousand people. [1]


Great Ormond Street Hospital
The International Patient Centre at Great Ormond Street Hospital

Healthcare services are delivered by the public sector (the NHS) and the private sector. In some areas and in London in particular, major NHS hospitals have their own private wards or facilities which are predominantly used to provide services for international patients. A good example of this is the Harris International Patient Centre at Great Ormond Street Hospital which has 130 staff, working with over 170 clinicians to provide specialist treatment for children from all over the world.

There is a thriving private healthcare sector in the UK, and in London many of the hospitals treating international patients are private hospitals run by international companies such as HCA International, a subsidiary of the US based Hospital Corporation of America. So, an American can be treated in an American run hospital in London!

The UK National Health Service

The public sector, the National Health Service (NHS), provides an extensive General Practioner (GP) service, with free, high quality out-patient and hospital care for all people who reside permanently in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Within the UK healthcare system, an estimated 88% of the population receives NHS medical care free of charge.

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales control their own part of the UK healthcare system. All are funded publicly by taxes. Primary Care Trusts (England), Health Boards (Scotland), Local Health Boards  (Wales) and Primary Care Partnerships (Northern Ireland) administer healthcare and are responsible for using allocated budgets to provide healthcare services regionally.

What about waiting times?

A few years ago the UK healthcare system did have a problem with waiting times but things have improved dramatically and waiting times are now at their lowest level in the history of the NHS:

  • When a patient is referred for hospital treatment by a GP, the average weight is 7.7 weeks
  • Someone who needs treatment as an out-patient or day case only has to wait 4.2 weeks.
  • The average wait for a diagnostic test is 1.9 weeks
  • In an emergency, speed is the ultimate objective and 98.1% of patients are now seen, diagnosed and treated within four hours or getting to Accident & Emergency (The Emergency Room).



The UK healthcare system: important facts and statistics


The UK NHS was launched in 1948, and has become the largest health service funded by public funds anywhere in the world. There are, in total, 1.5 million UK NHS employees, including 90 000 doctors based in hospitals, 35 000 GPs, 400 000 nursing staff and 6000 people in the ambulance service. 


Average figures show that nearly 670 000 people are treated within the NHS every 24 hours. Apart from prescription charges made for around 11% of prescribed drugs and some charges for dental treatment and fertility treatment, all procedures are free.  During a typical week, 700 000 people will have free NHS dental treatment, 3000 patients will have a heart operation such as a coronary artery bypass. 

The UK Private Healthcare Sector

The UK healthcare system also provides a choice for those who have private medical insurance, either personally funded or as part of an employment package, or for those who choose to self-pay for a one-off procedure or course of treatment. The private UK healthcare system provides medical care for around 12% of the UK population and is the primary source of medical treatment for people travelling to the UK as medical tourists.

The UK healthcare system includes many private hospitals and clinics throughout the UK. The largest of these are in London and include large private hospitals such as The Cromwell Hospital, The London Clinic and The Harley Street Clinic. Private hospitals accept and treat patients from within the UK and from other countries, providing the same standard of excellent medical care.

Medical Tourism and the UK healthcare system

The UK healthcare system has always been an attractive option for medical tourists from all over the world.  All types of treatment and procedure are available, with costs being substantially lower than in the US. Many operations are available at a similar cost to medical tourism destinations such as Singapore and South Korea.

As an example, a hip replacement operation, which may cost $33 000 – $57,000 in the US healthcare system [2] is available in a UK private hospital for £6000 - £8000 ($9300 – $12 400) [3].

Medical Tourism and the UK Private Healthcare Sector

Patients from outside the UK who want to come here for treatment are welcome in all private hospitals on a self-pay basis. The facilities in UK private hospitals are on a par with the best in the US; state-of-the-art surgical facilities, diagnostic technology and medical care from highly trained staff. For most patients coming from the US, there is no language barrier, but many private hospitals in the UK provide translators and information in many different formats, including in European and Middle Eastern languages.

Private treatment in major NHS Hospitals

Recent proposed changes are expected to increase the current capacity of NHS hospitals for private medical patients from abroad. NHS hospitals such as the Christie Hospital in Manchester, and the University College London Hospital have already set up active collaborations with US-based private hospitals. Private treatment for heart and respiratory conditions for non-UK citizens is also already well established at The Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital and private care for all forms of cancer is active at The Royal Marsden. Great Ormond Street, the internationally renowned children’s hospital accepts young private patients from around the world every year.

[1] OECD Health Data 2010 available at http://www.oecd.org/document/16/0,3343,en_2649_34631_2085200_1_1_1_1,00.html Last accessed Jan 09 2011




[2] Woodman J Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody's Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism 2007 Healthy Travel Media ISBN-10: 0979107903 ISBN-13: 978-0979107900




[3] Private Healthcare UK: Private hip replacement costs in the UK and abroad. Available at http://www.privatehealth.co.uk/hospitaltreatment/whatdoesitcost/hip-replacement/ Last accessed 9 January 2011