UK residents are entitled to receive healthcare from National Health Service (NHS) doctors and hospitals. For permanent UK residents treatment by an NHS doctor or hospital is available free of charge.
Eligibility for free NHS treatment is based on being ordinarily resident in the UK rather than on being a British citizen. In fact, British citizens who live abroad are not entitled to free NHS treatment. Under UK law it is the responsibility of the NHS hospital providing healthcare services to ensure that the individual is eligible to receive free healthcare.
NHS General Practitioners (GPs) provide day-to-day healthcare for UK residents and also provide referrals to hospitals and specialist consultants. UK residents should make enquiries at one of the GP practises in their area and seek to register with one which has availability. GPs can write NHS prescriptions for authorised medication. Most people have to pay a flat fee for NHS prescriptions although some people are exempt.
For sudden or acute illnesses or injuries residents should go to the accident and emergency department of their nearest NHS Hospital. In very serious cases the emergency number, 999, should be called and an ambulance requested.
The demands on NHS services are very high and waiting times at accident and emergency departments can be lengthy. Naturally, priority will be given to the most serious cases. People with less serious illnesses or injuries are encouraged to use the other healthcare providers available. These could include consulting a pharmacist, attending at an NHS walk-in-centre or telephoning the NHS Direct helpline.
In 2000 NHS Walk-in-Centres were introduced to provide access to NHS healthcare for less serious illnesses and injuries; emergency contraception services are also available. People do not have to make an appointment or register to receive treatment and some Walk-in-Centres are open 365 days a year. However, enquiries should be made regarding the opening hours of individual centres. Most of the treatment is provided by nurses rather than doctors.
The NHS now offers online advice through the NHS Direct website. There is also a telephone helpline for people who have enquiries about a particular healthcare issue. Help is available 24 hours a day. People who are not sure whether they should go to their GP or to the hospital, or whether an ailment could be treated at home may find that a call to the NHS Direct Helpline will answer their questions.
UK Residents on Low Incomes
Residents on low incomes may also be entitled to additional services – such as prescriptions and treatment by a dentist – free of charge. Residents on income support, job seekers allowance or whose income falls below a prescribed minimum are amongst those who may be entitled to additional healthcare services for free. Residents who think that they may be eligible should contact their local Jobcentre Plus to ask about their entitlement and to request an application form.
Temporary UK Residents
Some temporary residents may also be able to register with a GP and receive free treatment from them. However, it is up to the individual GP whether or not they agree to register a temporary resident.
Healthcare Services Which are Free to Everyone in the UK
Whether someone is a British citizen, a permanent resident or a foreign national in the UK on holiday there are some healthcare services which are available to everyone free of charge. These include:
- Treatment at an NHS hospital accident and emergency department;
- Services provided by an NHS walk-in centre that provides accident and emergency type treatment;
- Treatment for some infectious diseases – however different rules apply to AIDS or HIV;
- Compulsory psychiatric treatment;
- Family planning services.
Where to Find NHS Treatment
The main NHS website has a comprehensive search tool where people can enter their postcode to find their nearest GP, hospital, walk-in-centre or dentist. Information is also available in the phone book or in local directories.