Is it worth paying privately for physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy can help you recover from an injury and support people with chronic illnesses. If you find yourself on a long waiting list for NHS treatment you might wonder whether to pay for private physio. We look at the advantages and disadvantages of paying privately for physiotherapy.

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What do physiotherapists do?

Physiotherapy treatment helps to get you moving again, whether you've sustained an injury, had surgery or have a chronic illness. Physiotherapists use various techniques to help with musculoskeletal injuries and conditions, restore mobility in patients who've had a stroke or heart attack and support patients with lung conditions such as asthma.

NHS physiotherapy treatment typically includes physical therapy such as massage, exercises, and advice on movements to increase mobility and prevent further symptoms or injury in the future.

Depending on where you're treated, some NHS physiotherapists and private physiotherapy clinics also offer alternative treatments like acupuncture and hydrotherapy.

10 Advantages of private physiotherapy

If you're considering paying for private physiotherapy, you might wonder what the differences are between private and NHS physiotherapy treatment and whether private physiotherapy offers any advantages over NHS care. Both NHS and private physiotherapy offer high-quality treatment with trained experts.

However, while private physiotherapy sessions offer some advantages over NHS physiotherapy, they also have some drawbacks that you should consider carefully before opting to see a private physiotherapist.

We'll start by considering the benefits of private physiotherapy.

1. More treatment sessions

NHS physiotherapists aim to get you moving and back on your feet after an injury or illness or give you tools to improve your mobility if you have an ongoing health issue. By contrast, private physiotherapy clinics aim to get you back to full fitness or as near to it as possible.

A course of NHS treatment is typically limited to three to five sessions of 20 minutes each. Private physiotherapy sessions can be anything from 30 minutes to an hour, with some initial assessments lasting up to 90 minutes, giving your physio more time to assess you and discuss your symptoms.

If you self-fund, you can pay for as many treatment sessions as needed to achieve the desired results.

2. More hands-on treatment

All physical therapy includes a combination of hands-on and hands-off treatment, with an initial assessment session, manual therapy and exercises to continue your treatment plan at home.

NHS physiotherapy clinics tend to include more hands-off therapy as they have limited time available for manual therapy. Private physiotherapy clinics design a tailored treatment plan and often have more time for hands-on treatments, which can help resolve injuries sooner.

However, stretches and exercises can empower patients to take responsibility for their recovery and provide tools for ongoing self-care. They can also be more beneficial in some circumstances, for example, in a rehabilitation programme after a hip or knee replacement.

3. Advanced technology

Private healthcare providers typically invest heavily in the latest technology, and private physiotherapy practices are no exception. Private practices typically offer greater access to therapeutic ultrasound, electrotherapy and laser therapy. Researchers are developing wearable technology, remote rehabilitation, virtual and augmented reality, robotics and AI for potential physical therapy benefits. Private physiotherapy clinics and healthcare providers will likely be the early adopters.

Private physiotherapists already use online portals and resources to support their patients between sessions. These offer an alternative to the printed sheet of exercises patients are typically given after NHS appointments. Instead, these systems provide videos demonstrating each exercise. Patients can also use the portal to ask questions and get a quick response from their therapist.

4. A broader range of treatments

We've mentioned that private physiotherapy often provides access to the latest treatment technology. Clinics can also offer a broader range of therapies. NHS care generally includes physical therapy and rehabilitation classes and can provide hydrotherapy, although this often requires a separate referral.

Private physiotherapists can partner with other therapists and train to provide alternative treatments as part of a personalised treatment plan. Some work with sports therapists specialising in sports injuries and can support an athlete's training programme with physical therapy and injury prevention advice.

Massage and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and reflexology, can also be beneficial as part of your treatment or for self-care.

5. Shorter waiting times

The NHS doesn't publish official statistics on waiting times for community services such as physiotherapy. However, the Health Service Journal's Freedom of Information request in 2022 revealed that over 320,000 patients were waiting for treatment for musculoskeletal issues, including physiotherapy. Actual waiting times are unclear, but NHS waiting lists are currently at record highs, with 7.6 million people waiting for treatment, over 300,000 of whom have waited more than a year.

Private physiotherapy typically offers shorter waiting times, meaning you can have your initial assessment sooner and begin treatment before your condition worsens.

6. Self-referrals

Some NHS GP surgeries have a self-referral service where patients can book a physio session directly with the provider. If your GP recommends physiotherapy following tests or scans, you can typically book a private physiotherapy appointment sooner than you'll get one via the NHS.

However, you don't need a GP referral to book a private physiotherapy appointment. You can book an initial assessment with a private clinic if you've had an injury or experience ongoing pain. Physiotherapists are trained to provide a diagnosis and can advise you if you need to see your GP or have diagnostic investigations they can't offer.

7. Individual treatment plans

After an initial assessment, a private physiotherapist will design a detailed treatment plan tailored to each patient. With private physiotherapy, you can usually book face-to-face appointments with the same therapist, which offers excellent continuity of care. You can see an NHS physiotherapist face-to-face but may not see the same person every time due to rota and shift changes.

8. More comfortable facilities

NHS hospitals are amazing places but not typically built for luxury. You may also be limited in where you can have your appointment. With private physiotherapy, you can choose a convenient clinic location and will typically find more luxurious facilities which can help you relax during your treatment.

Some physiotherapists work in gyms or have exercise rooms that enable them to assess your movement during sessions.

10. Longer opening hours

Most private physio clinics have extended opening hours, including evenings and weekends, so you can schedule appointments around your other commitments. NHS providers typically send appointment letters, and changing appointment dates can be challenging.

Some private physiotherapists offer evening or weekend appointments by arrangement, so you can request a date that works for you.

Disadvantages of private physiotherapy

Private physio has many benefits, but there are some downsides. In some circumstances, you may book a private physiotherapy appointment but find yourself heading back to the NHS for your care.

Here are a few potential disadvantages of private physio so you can consider which option is best for your needs.

Higher cost

The NHS provides a free healthcare service, so you'll never have to pay for your care at the point of use. To access private physiotherapy, you must pay a fee, typically an hourly rate, based on the length of your session. Private clinics are businesses, so they have overheads that the NHS doesn't, such as advertising to attract new patients.

The higher costs may mean you can only afford fewer sessions before your treatment becomes unaffordable.

Limits on health insurance-funded treatment

If you have health insurance, you'll likely have direct access to a few physiotherapy sessions. Health insurance provides core coverage with every policy, typically including eight to ten physiotherapy sessions per year. You can also tailor your policy by adding coverage to deliver more sessions. Some policies provide unlimited coverage, meaning your policy will pay for as many sessions as you need. Otherwise, your treatment will end when you reach the policy limit.

Health insurance only covers acute, curable conditions and excludes chronic illnesses and pre-existing conditions. This means you can't use your insurance if you have symptoms such as knee pain before buying your policy and need physiotherapy for it later.

You might still need the NHS

Many GP practices offer direct access to physiotherapy, meaning you can book an appointment without seeing your GP first. Alternatively, you can book an appointment with a private physio. An NHS physiotherapist can often arrange scans to ensure an accurate diagnosis. While some private physiotherapy clinics have ultrasound scanners, many don't. If you need a more detailed scan, such as an MRI scan, you'll need to see your GP for an NHS referral or pay for a private scan.

A private physio will typically tell you straightaway if you need investigations they can't provide. However, this will only happen once you've booked and paid for your first session.

More effort to find the right physiotherapist

When you have NHS physiotherapy, you can book an appointment, or your GP will refer you to someone with the proper skills and training. You can choose your private physiotherapist, but you must also do your due diligence.

All physiotherapists must be registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC), the regulatory body. The HCPC carries out inspections and checks that a physiotherapist's training is up to date and that they have insurance.

Reading online reviews from other patients can also help assess the overall experience and treatment quality. It can help you get treatment sooner but involves much more effort than seeking an NHS referral.

How much does private physiotherapy cost?

The cost of private physiotherapy depends on various factors. Costs are typically higher in London and other major cities because rent, utilities and staff wages cost more. The amount each provider invests in new technologies also varies, with large private healthcare companies typically investing heavily in cutting-edge treatments. This can help support your recovery but will generally be more expensive.

A highly experienced senior physiotherapist will charge a higher hourly rate, but their expertise can help you recover more quickly.

On average, a private physiotherapy appointment in the UK costs £75.07 for an initial 60-minute assessment and £52.81 for a 30-minute treatment session.

This varies depending on your location, with London, Newcastle and Birmingham having some of the highest fees while Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff have the lowest.

Paying for physiotherapy

As mentioned, your health insurance may cover your physiotherapy costs subject to policy limits. You can choose your therapist from those approved by your insurer.

Alternatively, you can self-fund your treatment and pay for sessions as you go. Some physiotherapy clinics offer treatment packages that let you book and pay for a block of sessions and save money.

Getting professional help

We create MyTribe guides to help you learn more about your healthcare options so you can make an informed choice. If you'd like to discover how private health insurance can support your healthcare needs, contact us today for a comparison quote. We'll connect you with a regulated broker for tailored advice.

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.

Kirsty France
Personal Finance and Healthcare Expert

Kirsty is a personal finance and healthcare expert who enjoys demystifying legal and insurance topics for a wider audience. She’s a former solicitor with a personal injury and insurance background.

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