Public or Private healthcare, which do I choose?

A toy ambulance on a white table

Two hundred years ago if someone became ill they’d simply summon the local doctor and receive the treatment they needed. Forgetting the fact that most medical interventions involved heavy amounts of opium or spontaneous amputation, it was a system that tended to work well – if you were rich of course. For the Tiny Tims of the world, left to fend for themselves, things were less rosy. Indeed, the average working man couldn’t even expect to see his 30th birthday, such were the state of affairs.

Fortunately, things have moved on in the time since (unless you’re American) and Brits can now rely on high-quality healthcare from the NHS, free at the point of use, regardless of their background. However, private healthcare still exists, with around 10% of people preferring it to the alternative. This begs the question – what’s the difference between private and public healthcare in the UK and which is the best option for you?

The benefits of public healthcare

Any foreigners watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics may have been slightly confused to watch an entire army of bed-ridden children wheeled into the distinctive shape of the National Health Service logo. However most for most Brits the NHS is a huge source of national pride, on a par with Harry Potter, Paddington bear and an ability to form a queue quite literally anywhere.

The first and most obvious thing the NHS has going in its favour is that it’s free at the point of use. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, anyone is welcomed through its doors and will receive the treatment they need without needing to consider the financial implications. It’s also by far and away the largest provider of healthcare in the country, meaning it’s able to offer an enviable spread of services, from hospitals to GP surgeries to specialist sexual health clinics.

Why pay for private healthcare?

Although the NHS is large, its budget is limited by the amount of revenue generated by the government (largely through taxes). This means that it cannot always offer cutting-edge treatments for rare conditions, although the vast majority of conditions are covered. It relies on a body called NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) to weigh up the evidence and decide whether the benefit of treatment outweighs the cost. For example, a new drug that could add three months of life to a patient with a rare blood cancer would go to NICE for review. They could either accept it or decide that the £500,000 cost could provide more benefit elsewhere, perhaps being used to fund more effective drugs for other conditions.

In a private healthcare system the user pays contributions, normally via insurance. Because many people pay for a service that relatively few require, it allows private healthcare companies to sometimes provide these rarer treatment options. They also tend to have slightly more glamorous facilities, additional luxuries, and shinier equipment as different providers are in competition to attract new customers. The lower demand means that patients are often seen to quicker when seeing private doctors, however it should be noted that the standard of medical training is the same across both public and private healthcare.

Private healthcare meets public healthcare

Recently there has been much debate regarding the ‘privatisation of public healthcare’. This means that services provided on behalf of the NHS are carried out by private companies. These are still free of charge to the patient but mean that the NHS doesn’t directly employ the staff. For example pharmacy, dentistry and optical services are often private businesses that carry out a function for the NHS. On the other side of the coin, private healthcare companies sometimes use NHS facilities as they sometimes have equipment a private hospital doesn’t.

Needless to say, the picture can quickly become more confusing than it necessarily first appears. It’s important to note that patients receiving private care do not lose their ability to get NHS care if they desire; however, they cannot mix and match services from both during the course of their treatment. For example, they cannot choose a type of hip replacement only available through private healthcare and then have the operation though the NHS. Fortunately the NHS have established guidelines to clarify this exact issue.

So which do I choose?

At the end of the day both private and public healthcare often provide comparable levels of care. It’s up to you to decide whether the additional comfort and treatment range of a private hospital stay is worth paying an insurance premium. An increasing number of people are drawn to private healthcare due to the fact they can be seen quickly, often within a week of a GP referral. On the other hand patients on the NHS can often be left waiting weeks just for the referral, due to the increasing demand for GP services in the UK. 

Fortunately, it’s now possible for Londoners to get seen by an NHS-trained doctor in under two hours, without the commitment or typical high price tag of private healthcare. All a person needs to do is download the Qured healthcare app and register. With affordable one-off and monthly options it combines the best of both worlds – get in touch today to find out more! 

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