What is a private prescription, and how much does it cost?

We're all familiar with receiving a prescription from our NHS GP and going to our local pharmacy to get the needed medication. However, there is a private alternative. This guide explains private prescriptions and how much you can expect to pay.

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What are private prescriptions?

Private prescriptions offer an alternative to NHS prescriptions. You might be provided a private prescription instead of an NHS prescription for several reasons. You might have opted to see a private doctor instead of your NHS GP because it lets you get an appointment more quickly. Private doctors aren't allowed to issue NHS prescriptions and can only give you a private prescription.

Alternatively, you might have gone to see your NHS GP but been told that the medication prescribed isn't available on the NHS. In these circumstances, your GP can give you a private prescription so you can get the treatment you need.

NHS prescriptions are free in some circumstances or dispensed at a fixed charge of £9.65 per item unless you buy an NHS prepayment certificate. By contrast, if you have a private prescription, you must pay the total cost of the medication you need.

Who can provide a private prescription?

You can get a private prescription in several ways, allowing you to choose the service that best suits your circumstances.

NHS GPs

We're all entitled to free NHS care, so making an appointment with your GP is often the first port of call for most of us. The most recent GP patient survey suggests that most of us are happy with our GP's service. However, there's still increasing demand for appointments, meaning you could struggle to be seen quickly.

One of the main advantages of seeing your GP is that they already have details of your medical history. They can also provide you with a fixed-cost NHS prescription. However, if the medication they recommend isn't approved by the NHS, they can give you a private prescription instead.

There are, however, strict rules governing private prescribing by NHS doctors. They can't give you a private prescription just because it's cheaper than the NHS prescription charge or because you'd prefer a branded medication to a generic one.

Private GP services

Private GP services are becoming increasingly popular, mainly because they offer a 24/7 service depending on the type of appointment you need. GP surgeries typically operate during office hours, which may not always be convenient. If you need a face-to-face appointment, you must attend during a private surgery's opening hours. However, most private GP surgeries offer telephone appointments or video consultations online.

Private GPs have the same qualifications as NHS GPs. The main difference is that you pay for your appointment rather than getting it for free. You can find a provider online and book an appointment direct.

If you have health insurance, you'll likely have access to their virtual GP service, allowing you to book an appointment online or via an app.

Whichever service you choose, your doctor can provide a prescription if you need medication. They can only offer a private prescription as NHS prescriptions are only available if you're seen as an NHS patient rather than a private one.

Private prescriptions online

An increasing number of online pharmacy services allow you to order your medication online. They typically work by asking you to complete a health questionnaire online before allowing you to order and pay for your medication.

The NHS has advised that patients proceed cautiously when getting a prescription online. It can be hard to distinguish between a properly regulated provider and an unregulated one. Legally, a pharmacy must have a valid prescription before they dispense medication. A service that issues a prescription online based on your questionnaire and sends it to a pharmacy team for dispensing meets these requirements. Other private prescription services may not.

How do I get my medication with a private prescription?

NHS prescriptions can usually be dispensed by any local pharmacy, provided they've got the medicine you need in stock. You can take a paper prescription from your GP to your chosen pharmacy for collection. Alternatively, you can register with a pharmacy and allow your GP to send an electronic prescription straight to them.

A private prescription works similarly, although variations depend on how you get your prescription.

Paper prescriptions

If you've had a private face-to-face appointment, your doctor can give you a paper prescription as your NHS GP would. The only difference is that NHS prescriptions are written on an NHS prescription form, but a private one isn't. You can take your prescription to any pharmacy in the same way as you would with NHS prescriptions.

Online services

If you use an online doctor service, you may have a choice about how you receive your medication. You can have your medicine posted to your home address or delivered safely to your chosen click-and-collect point. Most pharmacies emphasise that they use discreet packaging to protect your privacy.

Some high street pharmacies, such as Lloyds and Boots, offer an online doctor service where you can have an online consultation before your doctor provides a private prescription. They can send this straight to their pharmacy staff to dispense your medication, allowing you to collect it from one of their stores or have it posted to you.

When are private prescriptions unsuitable?

If your doctor prescribes privately after an online consultation, it can be a convenient way of getting quick treatment for a routine or one-off health issue. If you're generally in good health and rarely need to see your doctor, the cost of a private prescription could be worth paying for convenience.

However, they are only suitable for some. Here are some occasions where you'll likely be better off avoiding private prescription medication.

If you're entitled to free NHS prescriptions

Before you consider paying the cost of a private prescription online, check to see whether you're entitled to free NHS prescriptions. Anyone aged under 16 (or under 18 and in full-time education) or over 60 gets free prescriptions. You can also receive free prescriptions if you're pregnant, have had a baby in the past 12 months or receive some benefits.

People with certain chronic conditions, such as diabetes, also qualify for free NHS prescriptions, although you'll need to apply for an exemption certificate to confirm your status.

If you qualify, you can get all your prescriptions free of charge without paying private prices.

Your GP may not prescribe the medication you need long-term

Private prescriptions are ideal for one-off illnesses; however, they may not be suitable if you need long-term care. Private healthcare services and health insurance don't treat conditions that require monitoring throughout your life. If you have an online consultation and are diagnosed with a chronic illness, your doctor will likely advise you to see your NHS GP for continuing care.

Anyone who prescribes medication is legally responsible for ensuring it's safe for the patient. Your GP will need information confirming why the medicine was prescribed during your online appointment and could refuse to prescribe the medication if they aren't satisfied it's needed. Alternatively, you may have to start the process of seeing your GP for an examination and diagnosis even though a doctor has already seen you privately.

It's also possible that the prescription gave you medication that isn't available on the NHS or that the dosage doesn't meet NHS guidelines. If you want to continue taking it, that could mean you'll have to pay private prescription costs every time.

How much does a private prescription cost?

Private prescription costs vary depending on the medication you need and who dispenses it. You'll need to pay the current price of the medicine plus a dispensing fee to the pharmacy that provides your medication. Depending on your chosen delivery method, you may also have to pay for postage.

Some medicines are more expensive than others. For example, painkillers such as aspirin or paracetamol are used and manufactured in huge quantities, so pharmaceutical companies can afford to charge less. Cutting-edge cancer drugs are prescribed less frequently, so they tend to cost more.

Differences in cost can also depend on whether you must pay for a branded medication. When Viagra was first used to treat erectile dysfunction, it was still under patent, which meant the manufacturers set the price. However, cheaper generic versions are now available since the patent ended.

Your pharmacy also charges a fee to cover their costs. Some have a fixed price, while others ask you to contact them for a quote, meaning you have to shop around before getting your medication.

Get in touch

MyTribe guides help you learn more about private medical care to make an informed choice.

If you'd like to know more about how private health insurance can help you access high-quality healthcare quickly, get in touch for a comparison quote. We'll put you in contact with a specialist, 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.

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident private health insurance and 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

How do private prescriptions work?

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If you see a doctor for a private consultation, they can only prescribe medication privately, meaning you'll need to pay the full cost of your medicine plus a prescribing fee. Your GP can also give you privately prescribed medication if it isn't available on the NHS.

Can my GP issue a private prescription if it's cheaper than the NHS standard charge?

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No. The standard charges allow the NHS to spread the cost of prescribing medication, and your doctor must give you an NHS prescription if the drug is available on the NHS. You can only save money and pay the lower charge if you've had private healthcare and got your prescription that way.

Can a child get a private prescription?

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Yes, anyone can get a private prescription, there are no age restrictions.

Are private prescriptions expensive?

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As you're paying for the medicne, the price can vary depending on what you need. Some medicines are cheap, but others can cost a lot.