The UK is privileged to have one of the best and most efficient healthcare systems in the world. What sets the NHS apart from others is that it is entirely publicly-funded, and patients are treated on a basis of their need, not whether they can afford to pay.

However, despite the popularity and success of the NHS, more citizens are opting in for private healthcare. A nationwide Consumer Intelligence survey found that 15% of respondents were likely to have considered paying for private treatment or insurance prior to the coronavirus pandemic, whereas that figure now stands at 27% post-coronavirus.

What are the benefits of private healthcare?

Reduced waiting time

Private healthcare can reduce the time you spend waiting for NHS treatment. There are instances where this is extremely useful, whether you’re a construction worker with back pain who needs to get on with your trade, or a professional athlete who needs surgery to return to the field. When time is of the essence, private healthcare could prove to be a potential career saver.

Even prior to the pandemic, NHS waiting times ‘had been deteriorating over a number of years’ with performance ‘well below where it should be’. With coronavirus creating a huge backlog of patients and the waiting list for treatments growing even longer, the reduced waiting time offered by private healthcare is more appealing than ever.

Access to specialist drugs

Some specialist drugs are not available within NHS care. This is because they’re either too expensive or not yet approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). However, in the private sector these drugs get prescribed if deemed appropriate by the consultant. Not only does this give private patients access to a larger selection of drugs, but it also allows them to have them prescribed more quickly.

Availability of expert advice

Unlike many sectors, there is an abundance of expert advice to help settle any uncertainties around insurance, what is covered and how much it costs. These organisations will answer your questions far better than any article on the internet, helping to tailor your cover to your specific needs. If you’re unsure, seek out the advice.

What you need to be aware of before you get cover

Private treatment can be expensive

Treatment on the NHS is free, whereas you’ll need to pay for treatment if you opt to go down the private healthcare route. Even with insurance it can be expensive, and premiums will rise every year. By the time you’re older (and thus more likely to actually make use of the treatment) it can become more difficult to afford private insurance.

However, private medical insurance is good value if you need treatment from a specialist who does not work for the NHS. If you rely on your body for a career, you may want access to treatment that isn’t available in the NHS — such as physios or surgeons who only do private work.

Pre-existing chronic illnesses aren’t usually covered

A pre-existing medical condition is any illness you have had treatment or sought advice for before the beginning of your private policy. Generally, insurers won’t cover you for a condition you have been treated for in the five years before the start date of your policy. This means you can’t seek private health insurance to cover medical costs retrospective of a diagnosis. The insurance must already be in place.

However, it is normal for insurers to cover an illness after a two-year period. This is provided you have not had treatment and have had a private medical policy in place during the same period.

You usually can’t mix treatment between NHS and private

You can’t choose to mix different parts of the same treatment between NHS and private, as it can only be supervised by one healthcare team. For example, you can’t have an operation on the NHS and pay privately for supplements only available as part of private care. Your first option is to go exclusively through the NHS: have the operation and get standard, NHS-provided supplements. Your second is to pay for both the operation and supplements with your private cover.

Some believe the private sector is damaging to the NHS

In her article for The Guardian, NHS Commissioner Jessica Arnold argues, by opting for private healthcare, patients are buoying a sector that is stealing precious NHS staff. If left unchecked, Arnold continues, it will jeopardise the long-term future of the service. It also alludes to the real reason for longer waiting times in the NHS: lack of staff. By moving to private healthcare, this may solve a short-term problem for patients who can afford it, but by doing so it damages the system as a whole.

Representatives from the private sector have responded to the issues outlined in Arnold’s piece. In one response it is argued that private healthcare — either provided through insurance or funded by individuals themselves — plays a vital role in complementing NHS services. There is a recent case study for this in light of coronavirus, with private hospitals providing extra beds to the NHS.

There are compelling arguments on both sides of this debate. The best advice is to do your research and make a decision based on your personal circumstance.