How the NHS Works

The NHS Direct website - - is a good place to start.  You can get immediate advice on-line, you can find your local doctor, hospital, dentist and other services and you can get lots of sane, sage advice about eating, drinking, sex, exercise, mental health and living well.

There are lots of websites showing how the NHS is administered but we really want it from the patient’s perspective.  So can we please have some contributions here from readers who know.  Here are just a few basics:-

  • The NHS is largely free for British citizens
  • Your starting point is to register at a GP (General Practitioner)
  • If you’re away from home you can visit any doctor but you have to fill in a form with the address of your own GP
  • GPs can prescribe medicines that you might need.  You take the prescription to a chemist and they supply what the doctor ordered.  Prescription charges apply to most cases but some people (old people for example) don’t have to pay.
  • Your GP will refer you to a specialist (a consultant) if you have anything complicated
  • You’d go to a hospital usually only for an arranged treatment – a consultant’s visit or an operation – or in an emergency

Some people take out private medical insurance in order to get a better service.  The facilities that are used – doctors, consultants, hospital equipment – are very often the same as in the NHS and the quality of private medical treatment is unlikely to be any better.  But you do get two things from private treatment.  First the doctors give you a bit more time to explain what’s wrong and what they’re going to do.  Not a lot more time and some would say any difference is not noticeable.  Second, because you are using doctors, particularly consultants, in their private practice hours, you are likely to be able to get an appointment sooner than you would in the NHS.  This is a political hot potato and we don’t debate the rights and wrongs of it here – it is just what happens.

And the NHS is not there for frivolous treatments like cosmetic surgery.  So there is a borderline between what the NHS will cover and what it won’t and this often makes for difficult choices – expensive treatments that give very little benefit will be excluded.  Some specialisms often fall outside the NHS scope and so are run as private services – see, for example, Dentists, Opticians etc.