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What is the NHS

A Quick Look at the NHS

As a resident of the UK, one of the terms you will hear often is the NHS.  Like many government schemes, the bureaucracy of the NHS and some of the terms used can over-complicate the function of and the rules pertaining to the NHS.  Here is a quick look at the NHS and how to use it.

NHS stands for the National Health Service. The NHS operates a residence based health care system.  Ordinary residents are entitled to free medical services, but are required to make a co-payment for prescriptions, dental care, eye care and other services.

It is the phrase “ordinary resident” that seems to cause the most confusion.

An ordinary resident means that a person is living in the UK on a lawful basis.  However being considered an ordinary resident is not dependent upon payment of UK taxes, National Insurance contributions, being a UK property owner, nationality, being registered with a general practitioner, having a NHS number or even having a place to live. Doctors are also not allowed to ask for documents that prove a person is in the UK legally so in effect everyone is entitled to receive free primary care.  (Doctors are allowed to ask for identification. However, the same procedures must be followed for all patients and cannot be used as a reason to refuse treatment.

Citizens of the EEA (which consists of the EU, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) living in the UK and those working in the UK via visas are entitled to full coverage, which includes coverage for hospital stays.  Citizens of some countries will be required to pay an immigration health surcharge, which is £200 per year and is paid in advance when applying for a visa. Those on student visas, and their dependents pay £125 annually per person. The full amount of the surcharge is collected to cover the length of time covered by the visa.

Those visiting the UK for a short period (less than six months) can receive treatment but are advised to purchase traveller’s health insurance. 

NHS Basics

The basics of the NHS are fairly simple and understanding the participants in the system can help individuals get the care they need.

The NHS is made up independent contractors, such as general practitioners (GPs), dentists, pharmacists and optometrists. The NHS also operates a number of walk-in centres.

  • General Practitioners (GP’s) – GP’s are the first stop for many patients.  They generally work as part of a team, which includes nurses and other health care workers and provide a wide range of services.  If they cannot treat an illness, they will refer the patient to a hospital.  GP’s provide a service based on the patient’s address and have set practice boundaries. GP’s cannot refuse service to anyone provided they are in the practice’s service boundaries’ unless they have no capacity to take on new patients.
  • Walk-in centres – Walk-in centres also include urgent care centres and minor injury clinics. Walk-in centres are designed to treat minor injuries or an illness that cannot wait unit a GP is open or available.
  • Pharmacists – Pharmacists can offer advice on a number of minor illnesses such as sore throats, headaches, and routine travel illnesses. Consulting with a pharmacist can result in a treatment for the problem and prevent a trip to a GP.
  • Call NHS 111 – Call NHS 111 is designed to help patients get medical help and advice when it is urgently needed, but the situation is not life threatening.  For any illness or injury for is life threatening or has the potential to become life threatening, the best and safest route is to call 999.

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