How to get private healthcare in the UK

If you've always relied on the NHS for your medical care, you may never have considered paying for private treatment before. However, as NHS waiting lists get longer, more and more of us are considering going private. Here's our explanation of how you can get private healthcare in the UK.

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Want to know how health insurance works?

In this video, we explain how private health insurance works in the UK, what it covers, what it doesn't and much more.

You have a choice when it comes to your medical treatment

When you see your GP for a medical issue that needs investigation, they'll send you for diagnostic tests or scans to give you a diagnosis before referring you for specialist treatment. Depending on the treatment you need, that could mean spending some time on a waiting list. However, under the NHS Patient Choice Programme, they should let you know what your options for treatment are, including advising you that you can choose to have private treatment if you prefer.

A recent House of Commons report on NHS waiting times found that patients needing elective treatments, for example, hip or knee replacements, were already waiting longer than the legal limit of 18 weeks before the pandemic. Over 300,000 people had been waiting for over a year!

If you face that kind of wait for NHS treatment, you may think you need to have health insurance to access private health care. While this is one option, you could also decide to use some of your savings and pay the £12,825 that a private hip replacement typically costs. Equally, you could opt for a private medical loan and spread the cost of your treatment.

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How private treatment differs from the NHS

You're given a few choices you won't usually get via the NHS when you opt for private healthcare. Firstly, you have more choice over who provides your treatment. If you know that a specific consultant excels in treating your condition, you can see them. You have the freedom to choose your consultant based on their reputation and what their previous patients think. For example, websites like Doctify actively collect patient feedback about all types of healthcare practitioners to make it easier for people to make informed decisions about their care.

Of course, something to consider alongside the consultant's reputation is what they charge and their availability. It could be that the best consultant isn't available for several months, or they charge much more than others due to their expertise. Either way, by going private, you have more control and can weigh up the various factors before deciding.

But it's not only the only additional choice you get. There is a range of private healthcare providers across the UK who can see you at an NHS or private hospital. You can choose based on convenience, cost, a particular consultant or a combination of those.

Whichever option you choose, you'll have quicker access to treatment than you would via the NHS. The treatment itself may also differ. Many private hospitals can offer drugs and treatments that aren't currently available via the NHS. Some providers also allow you direct access to consultation appointments so you could also receive a diagnosis more quickly than if you waited for a GP appointment.

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Do you already need treatment?

If you've already received a diagnosis, you might be wondering what your options are if you don't already have a health insurance plan.

Health insurance providers automatically exclude any pre-existing medical conditions that you have when you take out the policy. That means that you won't be able to get health insurance cover for the condition you've been diagnosed with or any other health issue that's needed treatment in the past five years.

However, the good news is that you can still access private healthcare if you have the means to pay for it yourself.

How to pay for private healthcare

There are three different ways to pay for private healthcare in the UK. You can use private medical insurance, pay for the treatment costs yourself or take out a personal medical loan. In the next section, we look at the three main ways to access private healthcare in the UK.

1. Private medical insurance

Private medical insurance policies allow you to pay a monthly premium and access private treatment as long as your policy covers it. You may also receive private health insurance as part of your employee benefits package, with your employer paying the health insurance premium so that you can get private medical care and get back to work more quickly. Health insurance is only suitable for conditions that you may be diagnosed with in the future. Private health insurance automatically excludes any medical conditions you've been treated for in the past five years. That means that if you've already had a diagnosis, it will be excluded from your health insurance cover as a pre-existing condition. Some health insurance policies will require details of your medical history when you take out the policy and exclude any pre-existing medical conditions upfront. In contrast, others will investigate when you make a claim.

It's still worth looking into getting health insurance for the future, but if you need treatment now, medical insurance won't help.

2. Self-pay

If you don't have health insurance, or you need treatment for a condition that your medical insurance doesn't cover, it might be time to spend some of your savings to get the treatment you need quickly. There are a couple of different ways to do this. Many private healthcare providers will give you a fixed price quote for the treatment you need. That could include your initial consultation, specialist surgery, rehabilitation, and specialist drugs.

If you're comparing quotes, it's essential to check whether they all offer the same things before deciding where to receive treatment. Some providers also offer a pay-as-you-go option if your treatment is less easy to predict. The pay-as-you-go option allows you to switch to another provider or go back to the NHS, depending on your needs and budget.

3. Personal medical loan

Perhaps you can't access private healthcare via medical insurance, and you don't have the funds immediately available to pay for private medical care. Your third option is to take out a personal medical loan. Most UK private hospitals offer loans via a third party finance provider. It's important to look at the terms of each loan and the total cost to you. We'd also suggest that you check that the financial conduct authority regulates the finance company. There's nothing to stop you from taking out a regular loan if the terms are better and the cost lower overall. Of course, any loan will only be possible if you meet the proper criteria for credit.

Nuffield Health offers a 0% interest loan if you pay over 6 or 10 instalments. If you need longer than that APR of 9.9% will apply. Spire's loan, offered via Omni Capital Retail Finance, is broadly similar, offering an interest-free loan for the first 10 months and 9.9% APR over 1 to 5 years, with a minimum loan of £1,000. Circle Group suggest that you treat your loan payments as a monthly premium, offering repayment terms from one to five years and interest-free. credit for the first year.

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How to get private treatment without health insurance

If you've decided you're ready to access private treatment, but you don't have private medical insurance, here's the process you can expect to follow:

  1. Speak to your NHS GP or a private GP
  2. Attend an outpatient appointment with a consultant
  3. Get a fixed price quote from the hospital
  4. Find out if you can be treated in an NHS hospital
  5. Book your surgery
  6. Post-surgery follow up
  7. Allow for some additional costs

1. Speak to your NHS GP or a private GP

Firstly, go and see your GP. This step applies even if you have a private medical insurance policy, as most insurers ask for a GP referral before they approve further treatment. Your GP can recommend a particular specialist and write a referral letter directly to them. If you'd like to do your own research, you can find out which specialist you'd like to be treated by and ask your GP to refer you to them. Your GP may charge to write the referral letter, so be prepared for that. Some healthcare providers allow you to pay to see a private GP, so you can choose that option if you prefer, for example, if appointments with your GP are hard to come by.

2. Attend an outpatient appointment with a consultant

Next, you'll have an outpatient appointment with your chosen consultant. Some providers allow you to opt to have your consultation appointments face to face, on the phone or via video call. If you need diagnostic tests or scans, these will be carried out at this appointment or arranged separately. If you need any further treatment, this will also be booked at this stage. You can expect to pay between £150 and £250 for this appointment. You'll either be asked to pay this on the day or settle it soon afterwards.

3. Get a fixed price quote from the hospital

Most private hospitals will be able to give you a fixed price quote to cover all aspects of your treatment. It'll include the cost of private surgery, the anaesthetist's fees, nursing costs, and the cost of your stay in the hospital if you cannot go home on the same day. We'd recommend that it's always worth doing some research to compare what different providers offer and what's included in your quote.

4. Your consultant may be able to carry out the operation in an NHS hospital

There isn't always a clear distinction between NHS professionals and private consultants. A specialist working privately may also work in the NHS. Many private healthcare providers have agreements with the NHS and carry out treatments in NHS hospitals. You can also ask your consultant if they're able to carry out your treatment in an NHS facility as a private patient. Many NHS hospitals offer hospital access on a private basis, and some ensure that private fees go back into care for NHS patients. This may be a less expensive option than receiving treatment in a private hospital.

5. Book your surgery

If the quote is higher than you expected, or you decide not to go ahead after your consultation appointment, you can leave it there and return to the NHS. If you're happy to continue, your surgery date will be scheduled.

Depending on your healthcare provider's payment terms, you'll be asked to pay all or part of the cost before you're admitted for treatment. If you've opted to pay monthly with a loan, your finance provider will arrange for the payment to be made on your behalf. You will also be advised about what will happen on the day of the surgery and have the admission procedures explained. These procedures may include pre-operative blood tests or medications that will increase your surgery's chances of success.

6. Post-surgery follow up

After your surgery or treatment has taken place, your consultant or the hospital will write to your GP to give them an update on your progress. You'll also have a follow-up appointment with your consultant to ensure that your recovery progresses as expected. If your treatment package includes follow-up rehabilitation, this will also start after your surgery.

7. Allow for some additional costs

Your rehabilitation is an integral part of your treatment. It can help you achieve a full recovery, particularly if you've been treated for a severe illness. Your consultant may have advised you about any post-operative care you might need. This could include physiotherapy or other rehabilitation. If you've opted not to have this at the private hospital, possibly because the location isn't convenient for regular visits, you'll need to make sure that you arrange this separately. It's worth discussing your options with your GP, but you may need to budget for some additional costs in arranging these services privately.

What are fixed price surgery schemes?

Many private hospitals offer fixed price surgery. Fixed-priced surgery includes all of your treatment costs, including consultant's fees, surgery costs including the operating theatre, anaesthetics, nursing care both during and after surgery, medications, and the costs of your stay in the hospital. Following your initial consultation with a specialist, the quote you receive should include all of these elements. Some providers also include aftercare as part of the overall price. Fixed price surgery schemes allow you to access private care at a predictable cost without any nasty surprises on your final invoice. If you need to take out a loan to spread the cost of your treatment into monthly payments, it will also allow you to assess whether that loan is affordable for you.

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Private hospitals in the UK

Private hospitals in the UK

With private medical insurance policies, your insurance provider will have a list of hospitals and treatment centres for you to pick from. There are a few independent private hospitals. However, most private healthcare is offered by large healthcare groups. When you pay your own healthcare costs, you have free choice. Here's our round-up of the leading companies operating in the UK.


HCA started with one private hospital in Nashville, USA and came to the UK in 1995. They believe in offering patient-led care, and their services include a private GP service as well as a range of therapies and surgical treatment. Their hospitals are mainly based in the city centres of London and Manchester, with their NHS partnership enabling their patients to receive treatment in one of over 30 private or NHS settings. They're also due to offer services in Birmingham from 2023. If you were accessing treatment via your private health insurance, you'd need to pay an extra premium to access HCA hospitals.

Spire Healthcare

When you choose Spire, you'll be treated at one of their treatment centres, comprising 39 hospitals and 8 clinics across the UK. They offer surgical treatments, rehabilitation therapies, health checks, and medical screening. You can be treated for pretty much anything from allergies and ear, nose and throat conditions to cancer treatment and spinal surgery. They offer fixed price packages to give you a predictable cost, and you can also opt to pay monthly with one of their finance options. It's also worth bearing in mind that you may still be able to choose treatment at a Spire hospital even if you're being treated by the NHS if there's a cooperative agreement in place.

Nuffield Health

Nuffield Health is the UK's largest healthcare charity, with 37 private hospitals. Their fitness centres aim to encourage healthy living and offer workplace well-being services. They aim to assess new patients within 24-48 hours of a GP referral and give you an appointment for tests or scans within another 48 hours. They state that most procedures will be available within two weeks of your initial diagnosis, and there's no limit on aftercare. We think that's worth bearing in mind that the amount of post-operative rehabilitation you need can sometimes be hard to predict if you're comparing quotes. You can access head to toe treatments along with fertility treatment and lifestyle management options on a self-pay basis, with an interest-free personal medical loan or via your health insurance provider.

Circle Health Group

Circle Health used to be known as BMI. They offer 55 different treatments at 54 private hospitals across the UK, from Aberdeen to the West Sussex coast, so their reach is quite impressive. Their philosophy centres around patient-focused care, and they pride themselves on their investment in new technologies. This includes AI, robotics and online booking. However, we suspect the last one is becoming a standard option with most private care providers. Their treatment facilities include a purpose-built rehabilitation facility which could be an advantage if your condition requires physical therapy instead of surgery or if you're likely to need post-op rehabilitation.

Ramsay Health

You may not have heard of Ramsay Health before, but they've offered private healthcare in England since 1968. Their ethos is one of high-quality care that makes their patients feel supported and looked after throughout the process. You can choose your consultant, and they'll lead your care alongside a private patient manager who works with the consultant and nursing team to ensure that care is managed correctly and patients are kept informed. That might be very appealing if you've ever been left hanging on the phone waiting for a treatment update that didn't come. You can also choose to have your initial consultation in person, on the phone or via video call at a time to suit you. They offer a range of treatments, both surgical and non-surgical, including a sports injury service and private GP appointments. They offer fixed price packages and will even try to price match quotes from other providers. You may also be able to access treatment at their hospitals as an NHS patient.

If you'd prefer to search for hospitals close to home without having to search for each of these providers individually, this website allows you to enter your postcode and see a list of hospitals in your area and details of their facilities and patient approval rating and Care Quality Commission rating. You can also find individual specialist consultants.

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How much does private medical treatment cost?

Here's the million-pound question; how much will your private healthcare cost? It won't surprise you to hear that the cost of private healthcare will depend on the treatment you need, the provider you choose and where you are in the country. Prices in London are typically higher than anywhere else in England and Wales.

These aren't the only factors that influence the costs of your treatment. Hospitals also need to factor in the prices of medical equipment, medicines, staffing, insurance, technology and facilities. A highly experienced consultant will cost more than a newly qualified one, so higher costs could equate to better quality treatment.

The cost of private surgery will vary depending on the complexity of the procedure. On average, you can expect to pay somewhere in the region of £1,585 to £2,680 for a colonoscopy, wisdom tooth removal, tonsillectomy or cataract surgery. A laparoscopic hernia repair or knee arthroscopy will set you back roughly £3,000 to £4,000. The most expensive surgeries are also the most complex. If you need a hip, knee or shoulder replacement, you'll need to find somewhere between £13,000 and £14,000.

If you know what type of treatment you need and want to find out how much it will cost in your part of the country, you can search for the costs of specific specialist treatment and your nearest hospital for SpireNuffield and Circle by clicking the links.

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What is private health insurance in the UK

What is private medical insurance?

Private health insurance allows you to access private treatment when you need it. You take out a health insurance policy with a provider of your choice and pay health insurance premiums to cover you for different conditions and treatments. These will vary depending on the private health insurance cover you choose. Some conditions may also be excluded because of something in your medical history, as health insurance won't cover you for any pre-existing conditions. Private health insurance lets you get quick, high-quality hospital treatment without needing to shop around for the best price.

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How does private health insurance work?

Private health insurance is provided by various health insurance companies across the UK. You choose the insurer that offers the right cover for you and then start paying health insurance premiums. Then, when you need treatment, you call your health insurance provider to make a claim. If your claim is approved, your insurer will arrange for you to start treatment. Some insurers have their own network of private hospitals, while others work with both private and NHS treatment centres. They'll let you know where you can be treated so that you can choose somewhere that's convenient for you.

The way the claims process works varies depending on the type of underwriting you have and whether you supplied your insurer with details of your medical history when you took out your health insurance. If your insurer already knows about any illnesses you've been treated for in the past, they'll be able to give you a quick decision. Otherwise, they'll need to investigate before confirming whether they'll pay for the treatment you need.

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The benefits of speaking to a health insurance broker

Private health insurance policies vary in terms of the level of cover they provide and the benefits you can expect to receive. Some will provide cover for specific treatments, for example, cancer treatment, as standard, while others will only offer it as an optional extra. Your needs and lifestyle will influence which health insurance policy is right for you. Some insurance policies allow you to add your whole family to your policy, while others offer incentives for healthy living. You'll also need to consider your budget. A no claims discount or higher excess on your health insurance plan can help you reduce your premium. Still, it's also worth looking at private health insurance that doesn't base costs on your postcode or offers a scheme where individual claims don't increase your premiums.

A health insurance broker can help you consider what type of private health insurance you might need and which policy will work best for your circumstances. You, therefore, don't have to spend lots of time going through individual websites trying to work out what each insurer covers.

At myTribe, our guides are designed to help you consider the type of private health insurance that could be right for you and the issues you need to consider. When you contact us, we'll connect you with highly rated brokers authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority to provide you with a personalised comparison quote and independent advice.

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Disclaimer: This information is general and what is best for you will depend on your personal circumstances. Please speak with a financial adviser or do your own research before making a decision.

Chris Steele
Cert CII (F1, IF7 & I10)
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident healthcare expert and has over a decade's experience writing for and about private medical insurance and private treatment. He's a Cert CII qualified member of The Chartered Insurance Institute and his research and work are often cited in the press. Chris is also contributing writer to numerous other financial services publications.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a GP referral for private medical treatment?

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If you need treatment, you don't always have to get a referral from your GP. However, this will depend on how you plan to pay for your treatment. Most hospitals will allow you to book appointments with a consultant without a GP referral if you are paying yourself. If you have private medical insurance, you'll need to check your policy's terms to see whether your insurer requires you to see a GP first (most do). Some policies offer a direct booking system without a referral for some conditions. This can include counselling for mental health issues.

Can I get finance for a loan for surgery?

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Yes. Many private healthcare companies have partnerships with finance companies to allow you to spread the cost of private treatment. You could also look at getting an ordinary loan from your bank if this is more cost-effective for you.

How much does private medical insurance cost in the UK?

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We've carried out extensive research into the cost of private health insurance in the UK. Click the link to find out more.

Can you go private and then return to the NHS?

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Yes. You can be treated by the NHS even if you have private health insurance and have received private treatment. This could be for rehab after private surgery or for treatment that isn't covered by your health insurance. For example, some cosmetic surgery is available via the NHS but generally isn't covered by private medical insurance.

Is private healthcare better than NHS?

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This is a difficult question to answer. You can't get some services privately, such as emergency treatment at A&E. Many NHS consultants also practice privately, so you could see the same consultant regardless of which option you choose. However, private healthcare offers shorter waiting times, and you're generally guaranteed a private room and more relaxed visiting times. You may also have access to treatments and drugs that aren't routinely available on the NHS.

Can you self refer to a private consultant?

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Yes, you can. You don't need a GP referral to see a private specialist, however, the British Medical Association believes in most cases, it's best practice to start with your GP as they know your history.

Will the NHS accept a private diagnosis?

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Yes. If you have a health problem and pay to have tests and scans privately but couldn't afford to have private surgery, you should be able to have your test results transferred to an NHS provider for treatment.

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