Here in the UK we are lucky enough to have access to free universal healthcare from the National Health Service. But the NHS isn’t perfect, and sometimes there are reasons why you might want the security and speed of private health insurance.
Private medical insurance can be expensive, and so it’s fair to ask if it is really worth having. In this article Bought By Many explain why you might get private health insurance, as well as letting you know some of the key benefits of private care.
Why get private health insurance?
The NHS provides free, universal healthcare to everyone living in the UK, and usually delivers world-class treatment if you become ill or have an accident. It’s a great reassurance to know that, no matter your age, stage in life or background, you can get free, quality care.
However, the NHS is not without weaknesses. In recent years, budget cuts and pressure on doctors – as well as a growing population – has meant that waiting lists for certain treatments are getting longer. Hospitals are stretched, and sometimes unable to cope with the amount of people seeking medical care. Some high profile issues have emerged over the quality of treatment at some previously reliable hospitals.
The NHS does allow you to choose the hospital from which you receive treatment in most circumstances, however there is limited flexibility beyond that choice. For some specific conditions – such as if you need cancer, mental health, or emergency treatment – you then aren’t able to choose where you’re treated and for any condition you’re not usually able to choose the specific specialist you’re referred to. So accessing a preferred doctor isn’t always possible.
The quality of care might vary by location as well. For example, Moneywise.co.uk states that ‘while some primary care trusts spend more than £40,000 per 1,000 patients on cancer inpatient treatment, others spend less than £20,000’.
Furthermore, some cutting-edge treatments simply aren’t available on the NHS, because they’re considered too expensive to be efficient. This means that certain cancer drugs, such as Herceptin and Avastin, cannot be prescribed, and neither can experimental drugs and treatment not yet approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). These forms of treatment are only available through private healthcare.
So, if you need treatment but for whatever reason don’t want to use the NHS, there are two main options available: go abroad and access cheaper treatment or procedures not available on the NHS from countries like Turkey – or pay for private healthcare in the UK.
Private healthcare in the United Kingdom can be expensive, with full cancer treatment sometimes costing more than £250,000. This means that private treatment for a serious illness like cancer, or heart disease, can be hard to budget for, even for those who are more well-off.
However, private healthcare comes with a lot of benefits that not only solve the issues with the NHS mentioned above, such as skipping long waiting lists, the ability to choose appointments, specialists and hospitals that suit you, and access to drugs not available on the NHS, but also a host of additional bonuses.
This makes private healthcare attractive to a lot of different people. You might have a young family and want to ensure they would get the best and quickest possible treatment if anything were to happen. You might be a busy individual who’d find it beneficial to get appointments and treatment at a time best for you, without waiting around. Or you might be an older person concerned about the need for the best possible healthcare in case of the possibility of developing any health conditions.
So, if you like the idea of private health care but are worried about the cost, private health insurance is an option to make it more affordable to access private care when you need it. Even for wealthy people, where a £250,000 cancer treatment is needed like the one mentioned above, it can be the difference between being able to get private treatment and falling back on the NHS. By paying a monthly premium, (depending on the level of cover and options chosen) you get access to tests and diagnostics, cancer care, a private hospital room, and a choice of hospitals.
Benefits of Private medical treatment and Private health insurance
Private health insurance gives you access to private medical treatment and healthcare, which offers a series of benefits. We explain some of these in the list below.
Skipping NHS queues
The NHS has an 18-week maximum referral to treatment time. Of course, sometimes it’s much faster than this, and many people are seen quickly and painlessly. But often the wait can be very long, and while this is fine for some people, others decide they want access to care as fast as possible.
A popular benefit of health insurance is its ability to get you ‘fast-track’ diagnostic tests and treatment if you fall ill. Private health insurance allows you to be referred to a specialist quickly, and at a time most convenient to you – which is not possible through the NHS. This can be a huge reassurance, especially if you’re also thinking about healthcare for children or loved ones, and can take a huge weight off your mind.
Sometimes, for a reduced cost, health insurance companies (such as Health-on-Line) offer a ‘6-week option’, which means that you go through the NHS if treatment is available within 6 weeks, and through private healthcare if it’s not. This allows private medical insurance to act as a safety net, not a replacement, for the NHS.
It’s important to note, however, that your health insurance won’t cover you for accidents and emergencies – you’d have to go through an NHS A&E department as normal. But follow-up care would be provided for.
Comfortable, private treatment
Healthcare in private hospitals gives you access to a personal room, often with more facilities and luxury than an NHS ward – for example your own TV, phone and bathroom. NHS wards are usually mixed-sex and don’t offer a lot of privacy. A personal room could be a real comfort when receiving treatment, especially for stressful or invasive operations.
As well as a private room, hospitals will provide nutritious meals (many people complain about the quality of food in NHS hospitals), and without limits on visiting hours, family can see you whenever they want.
More full coverage health insurance policies sometimes also offer at-home nurses, private ambulances, and a 24-hour GP helpline.
Access to drugs not available on the NHS
Many private healthcare plans offer drugs and treatment not currently available on the NHS due to cost, such as Herceptin and Avastin. Private medical insurance also sometimes offer experimental drugs and treatments, as long as they’re part of an ethically approved trial.
This is one of the main reasons people decide to take out health insurance. If the worst happens and you or one of your loved ones develops a serious illness like cancer, it can be reassuring to know that more options are available.
Access to quick and comprehensive diagnostics
Diagnostic tests and scans are an effective way for doctors to investigate suspected medical conditions, but they can be very costly if you pay for them yourself – the machines are very expensive to build and maintain.
As a result, the NHS also have a limited simply of such machines, meaning that diagnostic tests like MRI and CAT scans are used sparingly. Waiting times for scans can be longer as queues form – the BBC reported in September 2015 that the “The [NHS] target wait for diagnostic services has not been met for 18 months”. By comparison, private scans usually take place within a matter of days.
If you’re worried you may have an illness and want to know whether you do or not quickly, one option is to pay for these kinds of scans privately – but this can be an extremely difficult decision. After all, it’s difficult to justify paying for a test when you aren’t even sure you’re ill yet.
Private health insurance can take away this worry, as diagnostic tests are usually provided as standard with most cover plans (though note that cover does vary and it is worth checking). This means that, if a scan isn’t available through the NHS, you’d be able to use your medical insurance to pay for a quick and comprehensive medical diagnostic.
Mental health care
Lack of funding means that NHS treatment for mental health issues is not given priority, and waiting lists are often extremely long. Also, due to limited NHS resources, if you require mental health care you aren’t able to choose the hospital from which you receive treatment.
Mental health problems such as stress or depression can strike anyone, and it’s good to know that with private health insurance, psychiatric care is often an option with most health care plans, and is sometimes offered as standard with higher coverage plans. The private policies would also usually allow you to choose from a range of approved hospitals and specialists, making treatment more convenient. This can be a significant benefit for mental health conditions that require a longer recovery time.
Choice of hospital and specialist
As mentioned above, there are certain circumstances in which you aren’t able to choose the hospital you’re treated at under the NHS, such as if you need cancer treatment or mental health care. With private medical insurance you’re usually given a choice of hospital lists to choose from, depending on how much you want to pay. City hospitals, especially those in London, are often the most expensive.
Under the NHS, you can usually choose the team you’ll be treated under, but not the specific specialist. With private health insurance, you’re also able to choose your doctor. This means that not only can you can choose a hospital that suits your life and location best, but also find a specialist you think will give you the best treatment.
Physiotherapy and alternative treatments
Health insurance often provides cover for physiotherapy and chiropractic treatments, quicker than would be available on the NHS. This can be beneficial for people at risk of muscular or joint issues – perhaps amateur sports people, manual workers who rely on good health for their jobs, or office workers who spend long periods at their workstation. Being able to have these conditions treated quickly without waiting can avoid periods of discomfort or the risk that they develop into more complex conditions.
Private medical insurance also sometimes offers alternative therapies as part of its core cover, such as acupuncture and alternative medicine. These aren’t generally available on the NHS, and without insurance can be quite pricey.
However, do bear in mind that with some cheaper coverage plans, these treatments and therapies are not covered as standard, or may be subject to specific limits on payouts in a given year. So check the small print if you’re interested in physiotherapy or alternative treatments, to make sure you’re covered for everything you want.
A Healthier Lifestyle
In recent years, health insurance companies have started to take a great interest in promoting healthy habits and life choices. For example, Vitality offers discounts such as 50% off membership at Virgin gyms, 50% cash back on a bike at Evans Cycles, and rewards you for your activity with Starbucks and cinema vouchers.
Not only is this good for your general health and well-being, but by encouraging healthy habits, health insurance companies can avoid claims and keep their premiums down.