This post, updated for 2023, explains how private health insurance works in the UK before detailing the benefits you can expect from a policy.
Health insurance, sometimes called private medical insurance, allows you to access private hospitals and healthcare services in the UK, should you need them. You pay a monthly premium, and if you become injured or unwell, you can make a claim and be seen privately. Like all types of insurance, what you are covered for will vary depending on the options you choose when you take out the policy. For example, there are basic policies, which will merely cover the cost of treatments where an overnight stay in hospital is required (inpatient) and more comprehensive policies, which cover things like diagnostic tests and consultations, along with outpatient treatment and mental health support. As you might expect, the basic policies tend to be relatively inexpensive, with more comprehensive coverage coming at a higher cost.
Crucially, health insurance only ever covers you for acute medical conditions, meaning those which can be cured relatively quickly. Chronic conditions that perhaps require ongoing management rather than immediate treatment won't be covered.
These are the most significant benefits you can expect when you take out a health insurance policy in the UK:
Arguably the most significant benefit of having health insurance in the UK is that you'll usually be treated much faster than you would if you went through the NHS. Of course, there are occasional exceptions to that, but by in large, going private means getting the treatment you need sooner. As highlighted by this British Medical Association article, more patients than ever are currently waiting for NHS treatment, which is one of the main reasons we've seen an increase in the number of people who have never had private medical insurance taking out policies.
If you opt for a comprehensive policy, then you'll benefit from being diagnosed privately as well as being treated. You'd always start with a GP appointment, but rather than being referred to NHS for testing, scans and consultations, all of it would take place privately. It's perhaps the biggest benefit of comprehensive policies as you effectively reduce your reliance on the NHS and minimise the chance of being sat on a waiting list. Ultimately, a faster diagnosis means faster treatment, which is why many opt for a comprehensive policy over a basic one.
As reported by Cancer Research back in 2015, 1 in 2 people in the UK will get cancer at some point in their lives. With recovery and survival rates closely linked to the speed of diagnosis and treatment, it's one of the foremost reasons to take out a private health insurance policy. All of the UK's best private health insurance providers provide excellent cancer cover, and you can usually expect to be diagnosed and subsequently treated much faster than if you didn't have a policy. Not only will you be treated sooner, but you'll also get additional support along the way. That could be access to qualified counsellors, the option to receive chemotherapy at home, and even money towards the cost of prostheses and wigs if required. Cancer cover is a key part of all of the leading providers' policies; they know how important it is to people, with the level of cover and care being extremely high in most cases.
Depending on the condition you've been diagnosed with, you could be in hospital for anything from a couple of days to several months. Either way, by going private, you'll have a private room while you're in hospital. While on the face of it, this may seem like a relatively insignificant benefit, for many, having privacy during their time in hospital can make a big difference to their overall experience. Not only will you get a private room, but most private hospitals are much more relaxed when it comes to visitation hours too. So your family can visit more frequently, at times that suit them, rather than being limited to stricter rules in an NHS hospital. Many of the top insurers will also include money towards the cost of accommodation for parents if their children need to stay in hospital, meaning parents can spend more time there, rather than driving to and from home.
While many treatments are available on the NHS, some are excluded or not approved due to their cost or experimental nature. With private health insurance, many of those restrictions will be removed, giving you the ability to receive the latest drugs and treatments, regardless of their cost. Again, there will be exceptions, and all drugs and treatments must be approved by NICE for their use to be considered, but, your options are much broader when you are being seen privately.
Most leading providers and policies will give you access to virtual GP services, sometimes called a digital GP. While the service is delivered will vary between insurers, most will let you book a telephone or video consultation appointment with a GP via an app or online. It means that you can usually get the medical advice, prescriptions, and even the referral you need much faster than trying to get an appointment with your local NHS GP. Some health insurance providers even let you book GP appointments 24/7, so you can fit it in around your schedule. As NHS GPs have restricted physical appointments in their surgeries in the past few years, these virtual GP services have become increasingly popular.
We should point out that you don't have to have private health insurance to get a virtual GP appointment as there are many services, such as Livi and Simplyhealth, that will let you pay to see a GP privately.
Private health insurance will often come with mental health support, where you can speak to a trained mental health nurse around the clock. Many providers are now including access to talking therapies with their core products. If you'd like more extensive cover, you can opt to take out Mental Health Cover in addition to your policy which will remove many of the restrictions and give you outpatient access to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
Most of the time, you have little say over where, when and who treats you via the NHS, it's a postcode lottery, and you're usually be limited to the hospitals, consultants and timeslots that are available. With private health insurance, you get a much greater choice when it comes to your treatment. Firstly, we should point out that choosing your consultant and even a hospital will depend on what options you choose when you set up your health insurance policy. By default, insurers will give you a national hospital list to choose from, and they'll likely be the ones recommending your consultant too. However, you can choose to include other hospitals in your list and have the option to choose your own consultant too. Both of these typically come at a cost, but if getting access to the best of the best is essential to you, then it's perhaps a cost worth paying. In any case, with all health insurance policies, you'll have much more flexibility when it comes to when your treatment takes place. Generally speaking, there is most available in the private sector, so you can book the treatment for a time that suits you and your other commitments.
Many of the leading health insurers in the UK include an annual health check with their policies. It's an opportunity for you to review your current physical health thoroughly and for the professionals to spot anything wrong ahead of time. During your annual health check, you can expect all of the following to be looked at; your cholesterol profile, your mobility and flexibility, your body fat percentage, your BMI, your blood pressure, and much more.
Finally, all of the health insurance providers in the UK will give you discounts for various things, which can go some way to offsetting the cost of your policy. The biggest and most popular is discounted gym membership, but there are also various other offers such as discounted coffee, clothing, travel and much more. If cost is key to you, checking out which providers will give the most valuable discounts is a helpful exercise to bring the effective cost of the health insurance.
There are disadvantages to health insurance, and we think it's essential to have a balanced view of the service and give you all of the facts. Here are what we consider the main disadvantages:
The private healthcare system isn't a complete replacement for the NHS; it's a complimentary service that you should use alongside the public health system. There are several reasons why that's the case, but most significantly, private health insurance won't cover you for chronic conditions, meaning those that can't be cured. While you may have been diagnosed privately, you will need to seek NHS treatment and management for those conditions. Private hospitals also don't provide accident and emergency services, so if you suddenly become unwell, you'd still need to visit your local A&E. Finally, while most health insurance providers give you the option to include children on the policy, the NHS gives priority to young people, so often the benefits of private cover aren't as pronounced.
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.
Health insurance is becoming increasingly important in the UK as the NHS struggles with a backlog of operations due to the recent pandemic. While it's not essential to have health insurance, people are increasingly opting to take it out to protect themselves and their family members.
Health insurance isn't mandatory in the UK as we all have access to the NHS for free. That said, there are numerous benefits of having private health insurance.
Generally speaking, people don't view health insurance as a waste of money as it gives people access to very high levels of care in the event they need it. In most cases, those treated privately in the past find it necessary to keep an insurance policy as they have had first-hand experience of the value it provides.
The three top benefits of health insurance are; faster treatment, faster diagnosis and excellent cancer cover. To see more benefits, please read the rest of our article.
Save up to 37%* on your insurance by comparing policies
*Based on 461 quotes between 01/22-01/23