Private GP vs NHS GP

If you've ever considered paying to see a private GP, you might wonder how the service compares to your NHS GP. We examine the differences and what you can expect when booking an appointment.

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The main differences between an NHS GP and a Private GP

The most significant difference between your NHS GP and a private GP is whether or not you have to pay to see them. NHS GPs are free, whereas private GPs will charge, usually per consultation.

Summary of primary differences:

  • NHS GPs don't charge you, whereas private GPs will
  • Waiting times are typically much shorter with a private GP vs NHS GP.
  • Prescription charges are usually lower with your NHS GP than a private GP.
  • With your NHS GP, you get continuity of care. You may see the same doctor for many years (albeit this isn't always the case these days).
  • Consultations with a private GP are typically longer, giving you more time with the doctor.

Please read on to find out more.

How does private healthcare work?

You can access private healthcare by paying your chosen medical professional for their services. You can pay privately for most healthcare services, such as surgery, physiotherapy or private GP appointments.

If you have private health insurance, your policy covers various medical treatments and services. The policy will usually include limits on the amount you can spend on each type of treatment or the number of sessions you can have.

Alternatively, you can self-fund your care if you don't have health insurance or need treatment your policy doesn't cover. For example, you can pay for a private GP appointment or an operation with the appropriate referral.

Advantages of an NHS GP

NHS GPs have had a bad press recently, with patients reporting challenges when trying to make an appointment. However, NHS GP appointments offer many benefits. Here are just a few.

Free treatment

All National Health Service care is free at the point of delivery. We may pay for the NHS through our taxes, but you can book appointments for yourself or your children without worrying about the cost.

Access to other healthcare professionals

GP practices typically comprise a team of medical professionals working alongside a GP partnership. Depending on the practice's offerings, GP services can include access to trained nurses, blood tests, and physiotherapists. Some practices also perform minor surgical procedures, meaning you won't have to go to a hospital. Providing additional services is often in a surgery's best interests, as they can attract extra funding.

GP practices can also provide access to community services, such as the local NHS midwifery service or health visitors.

A local service

A GP surgery is a private business run by a GP partnership. However, it typically has only one client: the NHS. NHS practices operate under a contract with the NHS, administered by the local clinical commissioning group (CCG). Each CCG operates in a defined area to provide healthcare to local people.

This approach usually means that your GP knows your area and understands the health issues affecting local people. Another advantage is that your GP surgery will likely be close to home, so you can easily get to your appointment.

Lower prescription charges

NHS prescription charges aren't particularly cheap at £9.90 per item. However, they typically cost less than private prescriptions, which vary depending on the private GP that issued the prescription and the handling fee the pharmacy charges.

NHS prescriptions can be free if you meet the criteria. Anyone under 16 (or under 18 in full-time education) or over 60 qualifies, as do people on certain benefits or who are pregnant or have had a baby in the past 12 months. You can get an exemption certificate if you have a medical condition like diabetes.

If you need several prescriptions over a long period, you can reduce the cost by paying for a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC)

Continuity of care

If you see your GP regularly because of ongoing health issues or an illness that requires repeated monitoring or investigation, seeing the same doctor can make life easier for everyone. Your GP can get to know you, meaning they don't have to review your records every time, and you won't have to explain your medical history at every appointment. NHS GP appointments are typically shorter than private GP appointments, so good continuity of care means you get the best out of your available appointment time.

A study at the University of Cambridge found that patients who saw the same doctor regularly had longer intervals between appointments. There were numerous benefits for patients with chronic illnesses and mental health concerns.

Straightforward referrals

All GPs can refer patients for further treatment if needed. NHS GPs can refer you to your local NHS hospital or provide a private referral letter if you have health insurance or want to pay privately for surgery. Many private hospitals provide NHS services, so you can have treatment there if you choose. Conversely, private GP services can only offer a private referral.

You have a legal right to decide where to receive NHS treatment as you do with private treatment. For example, you might want to see a surgeon who specialises in the operation you need and has excellent success rates. It's a good idea to discuss your choice with your GP in case there are any drawbacks, such as needing to travel a long distance when this may negatively impact your health.

If you book an NHS appointment, your GP will provide a treatment request letter with a shortlist of consultants, a booking reference number, and a password or access code. You can then book your appointment through the NHS e-referral service.

Self-referrals

Private medical insurance includes direct access to some treatments, such as physiotherapy or counselling. The number of sessions available is typically limited but can help with straightforward health concerns or provide a short-term solution while waiting.

Some NHS trusts offer self-referral services, but these vary depending on your location.

Depending on local availability, you can self-refer for:

  • Pregnancy care
  • Drug and alcohol treatment
  • Sexual health services
  • Mental health treatment
  • Podiatry
  • Physiotherapy
  • Weight management

Check with your GP to see if you can self-refer. If you're registered for online services with your GP, you can check there to see what's available.

Advantages of private GP appointments

Private GP appointments work by offering quick access to appointments at a convenient time. Many patients report difficulties in booking an appointment with their GP for various reasons. Some find that surgery opening hours make it difficult to arrange medical appointments that fit with their work and other commitments. While the NHS has introduced new technology to make it easier for patients to get through on the phone, there are only a finite number of available appointments each day, meaning patients still experience the '8 am rush' to book a consultation.

Private GP appointments can relieve the pressure by offering online or telephone appointments with GPs across the UK, among other advantages.

Shorter waiting times

If you've ever faced a long wait for a face-to-face appointment with your GP, private GP services could offer a solution. The NHS 111 service provides a triage service and can advise you whether to seek emergency treatment at A&E, see a pharmacist or book an appointment with your GP. In the latter case, a private GP appointment can be a convenient way to get the necessary care.

Many providers offer online or telephone appointments 24/7 or face-to-face consultations during extended opening hours. The way a private GP operates means they're often able to provide same-day appointments or consultations within 24 hours of booking, which can mean shorter waiting times if you've been unable to book an appointment with your usual GP.

Accessible appointments online

As mentioned, many services offer telephone appointments or online video consultations. In some cases, this can help make appointments more accessible, as you can speak to a GP from the comfort of your home. This is ideal if you have mobility problems, lack transport, or feel too unwell to travel for an in-person appointment. It's also great for parents seeking medical advice for a child. Online and telephone appointments typically cost less than face-to-face, making them more accessible for financial reasons.

If you have health insurance, virtual GP services are typically included in the cost, while in-person appointments may have limited availability and come at an additional cost. Many local private GP services provide face-to-face appointments, so you can book an appointment close to home if you feel up to travelling.

Longer consultations

A typical NHS appointment is roughly ten minutes long. Conversely, private GPs typically offer longer appointments of around 30 minutes. Some private providers offer a choice of appointment times, ranging from 15 minutes to an hour. Longer appointments give you more time to discuss your symptoms in detail, explain your medical history and explore possible treatments.

If you have a chronic illness, your NHS doctors will monitor your symptoms and provide long-term care. Some private GP services aim to offer you an appointment with the same GP each time. However, this isn't always the case, so it may not be the right choice if you need long-term care. However, you can still book a private GP appointment for an unrelated illness. Having time to explain your medical history during your appointment allows the private GP to offer appropriate advice and treatment that won't adversely affect your other health issues.

Extended opening hours

Private GP practices typically offer extended opening hours in excess of those available with the NHS. They'll often open later in the evening and on Saturdays, providing in-person appointments that fit around your other commitments.

If you have health insurance, you can book virtual GP appointments 24/7 and the cost is included in your insurance. Some also offer face-to-face appointments. While these aren't available 24/7, they also offer extended hours, although you'll usually need to pay a top-up fee.

Can I see a private GP as well as an NHS doctor?

The short answer is yes, you can. For example, if you receive NHS care regularly for a long-term health concern, you can still consult a private GP for advice or a prescription for a short-term illness. A private GP can provide a treatment referral, but it's worth remembering that many private GPs can only refer you for private treatment. If you don't have health insurance or can't afford private surgery, you'll need to see your NHS doctor for an NHS referral. However, if you book a private GP appointment to speed up access to tests, you can take the results to your NHS practice.

NHS practices can do some private work, such as travel vaccinations, reports on fitness for travel, and compensation claims.

How much does a private GP appointment cost?

The cost of private GP appointments varies depending on your chosen provider and the type of appointment you need. Face-to-face consultations cost more than online or telephone appointments. Some providers offer extended appointments of up to an hour, with longer consultations costing more. Consultations cost between £10 and £90, with a one-hour in-person appointment costing up to £160. You can also expect to pay extra for tests, although some providers offer packages that include these.

As mentioned, virtual GP appointments are typically included if you have health insurance.

Do private GPs have access to NHS medical records?

All GP surgeries must provide patients access to their medical records online, although this only applies to new entries rather than your complete medical history. A private GP can't automatically see your NHS records, although they can access them with your consent.

You can ask your NHS practice to email your records to your private GP or show them your records via the NHS app. Some private GP services can also access your records digitally using the same systems as the NHS, with your consent. Otherwise, you must explain any relevant history or medications during your appointment.

Is there any difference in the quality of care provided by NHS and private GPs?

NHS and private GPs receive the same training and offer the same high standard of care. The challenges private GPs face often relate to a lack of continuity of care and limited access to patient records.

Private GPs are also subject to the same regulation as NHS practices and are inspected by the Care Quality Commission.

How to book a private GP appointment

Health insurance providers typically offer members an app or online portal to book private GP appointments.

Otherwise, the booking system depends on the system your local private GP offers. Most providers offer online booking or have a telephone number you can call to request an appointment.

Getting professional advice

MyTribe guides help you understand your healthcare options, whether you choose private or NHS treatment. If you'd like to learn more about private health insurance, contact us today for a comparison quote. We'll introduce you to a regulated, high-quality 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.

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident private health insurance and healthcare expert. He has over a decade of experience writing about private medical insurance and treatment. He's Chartered Insurance Institute qualified and is regularly quoted by the national press.

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