Experiencing British Healthcare

Last week I celebrated my 29th birthday. How did I celebrate you might ask? Well, I spent the morning at the walk-in clinic trying to get meds for an infection I had gotten (Happy Birthday to me!).

This led me to want to write a post about the healthcare system in England.

To be honest, I find the healthcare system here rather intimidating. There’s the NHS (National Health Service) – which is free –  or you can get private insurance – which is not free. I’ve now experienced both and wanted to share my thoughts.


To begin, you first need to locate your local NHS practice. It could be a center/practice/surgery (as the terms are all used here to basically mean the same thing). To do this, you want to go onto the NHS website and use the “Services Near You” feature to locate a local GP. A GP is the equivalent of a primary doctor in the States. Once you’ve located your local clinic, you should reach out to them to confirm that they are accepting new patients and to register. Sometimes, the practice will have registration hours posted online so be sure to check its website before calling.

Next, you’ll need to actually go to the clinic and register. This usually requires you to fill out some forms (usually available online), proof of ID and proof of residence. Then, you’ll be asked to take your height, weight, blood pressure and pulse to note as part of the registration process. You can expect to do this step in the self-help registration area which usually is just a private area with a scale, a measuring tape and a blood pressure monitor.

After this step (which, for me, took about 10 mins), you’ll receive your NHS card in the post. It’s a simple white card with your name, NHS number, and the name and contact number to the practice you have registered at.

Once I received my card and official registration confirmation letter, I called for an appointment (it was a non-urgent matter) and was given an appointment 2.5 weeks later. Since it was nothing pressing or serious, I chose to see one of the nurse practitioners. I was given about 10-15 mins with her where she listened to what I needed (I was there for a prescription) and worked with me to give me an equivalent to what I was already taking back in the States. I was in and out – prescription in hand – quickly. All in all it really wasn’t a bad experience – then again, I can’t say what it would be like if you needed urgent care through the NHS.

Private Clinic

For my very urgent matter the morning of my birthday, Andy and I decided to skip the NHS and use our private insurance which his company provides. Having private insurance in the UK basically means that you can go see doctors outside of the NHS system and just pay your co-pay/deductible (whichever is applicable). It works similar to most non-medicaid and medicare health insurance plans in the US. Our particular plan is an international plan which works a bit different from standard private insurance. Under our plan, we have to pay the cost of the service upfront and then submit for reimbursement later.

The process for me to see someone at a private walk-in clinic was the following: we looked up a walk-in clinic that was open early that morning, we arrived (without an appointment) and were given an appointment time exactly one hour from our time of arrival (which was mainly because the doctor was not in as she was attending to an emergency at the hospital). During my appointment, the doctor asked me a few questions, ran a few quick tests to see exactly what kind of infection I had, and gave me a prescription. We paid for the cost of the visit plus lab fees. It was super easy and saved me what I’m sure would have been hours and hours of waiting at a NHS walk-in clinic.

For the future, I learned that had my situation been less urgent, I could have called the clinic to make a same-day appointment which would have eliminated the wait time.


In both situations, I sought a prescription and a prescription I got. I took both scripts (as they are called here) to my local pharmacy/chemist to get filled. During both instances, my meds were in stock so the wait time was minimal (probably about 5 mins). The first script was free – due to the medication – and the second was a charge of £8.50.

Having only experienced both the NHS and private health care here once, I can’t really say which I think is better/more efficient. I can however say that if the matter is not urgent, I will likely continue to use the free NHS services. But, if the matter is urgent (as is usually my luck), then I will take advantage of my private insurance and use the private walk-in clinics. I can also say that although I still do find the healthcare system here to be a bit intimidating, it’s really not bad and just takes a matter of getting used to.

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