The challenges faced by NHS GPs
As reported by this GP Online article in May 2022, the British Medical Association has warned that time is running out to reverse "the sustained decline" in the GP workforce. NHS Digital figures from 31st March 2022 show that the number of fully qualified Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) GPs fell by 369 between March 2021 and 2022. There's a similar story with nurses in General Practice, too, with the 140 fewer FTE nurses in March 2022 compared to the previous year.
There are increasing reports of patient difficulties getting appointments
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the reduction of GPs in practice, not to mention the added workload associated with the pandemic and vaccinations, there are increasing reports of patients finding it difficult to get GP appointments. And while the most recent GP Patient Survey suggests that, on the whole, people are happy with GP services, the strain is starting to show.
Out-of-hours medical care
Perhaps the most significant difference with private healthcare is that you can usually get a private GP appointment on the same day. Most NHS GPs typically work during the working week, and while some offer extended opening hours, they don't usually offer any services outside their opening hours. If you need medical assistance when your NHS GP is closed, you'll need to either speak to NHS 111 or head to A&E. But owing to unprecedented demand, both are also under considerable strain, contributing to public satisfaction of the NHS being their lowest for 25 years.
The type of people accessing private healthcare is changing
Private doctor services have been available for many years; however, in recent times, there's been a change in the type of people accessing these services, with demand rocketing, as highlighted in this recent Pulse Today report. Driven partly by NHS waiting lists, those choosing to or paying for their medical care are on the rise. We're not going to get into the political hot potato of the NHS vs Private, but needless to say, people are doing what they need to do to keep themselves and their families well.
What is a private GP service?
A private doctor service is one that you pay for yourself rather than accessing for free via the NHS. Private doctors are fully qualified and, in many cases, have moved to the private sector, having worked in the NHS. Many private GPs offer both face-to-face appointments, video consultations and telephone consultations.
How does a private GP work?
There are a variety of private GPs out there, some run small practices, and others are part of bigger healthcare groups. Depending on the practice, you'll either pay for your appointment upfront or after you visit the private doctor. In either case, you'll book an appointment via their website or by phoning them and then have it, either on the phone, via video or in person. Unlike your NHS GP, if you call one private GP and they have no availability, nothing is stopping you from phoning another to get an appointment that's convenient for you.
You'll have to pay for prescriptions too
NHS prescriptions are priced at £9.35, so it doesn't matter whether the medicine you need costs more or less than that; it doesn't matter. You could pay more or less with private prescriptions depending on the medicine in question and the service you've obtained. A private prescription can be collected at your usual pharmacy, and there are also several online pharmacies you can order them from.
The benefits of private GPs
Here are the biggest benefits you can expect from using a private GP. Please note that these benefits aren't guaranteed and are generalisations; whether an NHS GP or private doctor is best for you will be case-specific.
- Shorter waiting times - You can usually get same-day appointments with more choice.
- Out-of-hours services - many leading private GP services operate 24/7, so you can get the help you need when you need it.
- Longer appointments - private GPs aren't constrained by their NHS counterparts' time pressures; most will give you 30-minute appointments.
- Bespoke treatments - private GPs aren't restricted by what is available on the NHS; therefore, they are free to recommend other treatment options.
- Potential home visits - while not always the case, some private GPs, especially smaller ones, will be happy to visit you at home.
- Flexibility - most of us are busy, and trying to fit a GP appointment in around commitments can be difficult. With a private GP, you can choose when your appointment takes place.
How much does a private GP appointment cost?
A private GP appointment typically costs between £75 - £110 for a 30-minute appointment on a weekday.
You can expect to pay more if you need a longer appointment over the weekend or on a Bank Holiday.
How to pay for private GP services
There are several ways you can pay for private GP services:
- Self-pay - simply pay for GP appointments as you need them.
- Subscription - some private GPs allow you to subscribe to their services monthly or annually.
- Via private health insurance - most leading health insurance providers now include a virtual GP service with their policies.
The downside of self-pay
While paying for GP appointments as you need them is a perfectly acceptable route, it does mean that you need to think about the cost before you make an appointment, and for some, that may mean they don't see the full benefit of a private doctor can offer. With a subscription and private health insurance, as you pay a regular monthly sum, you don't need to think about the cost of a GP appointment before you pick up the phone. This is especially useful for those with young children or more vulnerable members of society who may suffer from more frequent health concerns.
Private health insurance with access to private GPs
All of the UK's top health insurers now provide access to digital GP services in one way or another. In this section, we outline what those are before explaining some of the other benefits of private health insurance.
Aviva's Digital GP, provided by Square Health, gives you around-the-clock access to five GP video consultations per member per policy year. You get a choice over who your appointment is with and the flexibility to have appointments around the clock. Appointments last for 15 minutes and are video or telephone-based.
Axa Health's digital GP service is called "Doctor at Hand" and provides you 24/7 access to a GP by video call or phone. It's provided by Doctor Care Anywhere, and while they have a fair usage policy, from what we can see, you can use it up to five times in a calendar month without issue.
Bupa's Digital GP service is provided by Babylon Health and can be accessed 24/7 via a smartphone or tablet. From what we can see reviewing their terms and conditions, there are no limits to the amount you can use their Digital GP.
Freedom Health Insurance
Freedom Health insurance takes a different approach from other leading insurers. Rather than including a virtual GP service in their core policy, they offer an additional option that gives you access to in-person private GPs.
National Friendly are one of the lesser-known health insurance providers in the UK, but their policies are right up there with some of the best. Like others we mention, National Friendly give you access to a 24/7 virtual GP service via HealthHero.
Saga health insurance policies include 24/7 access to private GP consultations via telephone and video consultation in partnership with HealthHero. With Saga, you get unlimited access, so there's no need to worry about using it too much.
The Exeter provides their remote GP under the name of HealthWise, and with their policies, each named policyholder can have up to four consultations each year.
Vitality's health insurance gives you 24/7 access to a virtual GP and promises that you'll be able to speak to a GP on your phone within 48 hours. If you live in London, you can choose to see a private GP for a face-to-face appointment, and they'll charge you £20 with them covering the rest. There is a limit of two face-to-face appointments per year, but still, it's nice to have the option.
Like National Friendly and Saga, WPA's private GP is provided by HealthHero, and you get 24/7 access 365 days of the year. There are no limits on the number of private GP consultations you can have, which makes the difference for those needing more healthcare support.
Introduction to private health insurance
In truth, a private health insurance policy gives you so much more than private GP appointments. At its core, private medical insurance is designed to cover the cost of treatment in private hospitals as either an inpatient or day-patient. However, more comprehensive policies will also cover outpatient treatment and diagnostic tests, and you can also get cover for things such as physiotherapy and even routine dental appointments.
Benefits of health insurance
There are numerous benefits of health insurance services in the UK, but perhaps most crucially, given the challenges the NHS faces, it allows you to bypass waiting lists and be treated sooner.
Main benefits of private medical insurance
- Bypass NHS waiting lists and be treated sooner
- Have more flexibility over when and where you're treated
- Access to treatments and drugs not routinely available on the NHS
- Get round-the-clock private GP appointments
- Stay in a private room when in hospital
- Access mental health support (with optional add-on)
- Cover for physiotherapy and other alternate therapies (with optional add-on)
- Excellent cover for cancer and other life-threatening conditions
- Annual health checks
- Discounted gym membership and other offers
How to buy health insurance
With many providers and policies on the market, it's always sensible to compare medical insurance providers and speak to an independent health insurance broker. Brokers provide a free service, and they are duty-bound to act on your behalf, not the insurers. They can quickly help you identify the right sort of policy for you based on your requirements and budget and will also help you get to grips with what is a relatively complicated financial product.
Frequently asked questions
Can a private GP refer me to the NHS?
Yes, a private GP can refer you to the NHS for treatment. The NHS and the private sector work together so that you can interchange the two without issue.
Does health insurance cover unlimited appointments with private GPs?
Some private health insurance policies offer unlimited appointments with their Digital GP services. Others also give you unlimited access to face-to-face appointments if you opt for specific hospital lists.
Can a private GP write sick notes?
Yes, private GPs can write sick notes, just the same as an NHS GP.
Can a private GP come to my own home?
If you wish, some private doctors will come to your home. However, this isn't usually an option with health insurance policies as most only provide telephone and video calls with doctors.