Is private health insurance worth it UK?
UK private health insurance comes with great perks like shorter waiting times and more flexibility in where, when and who provides your medical treatment. But for many people, the biggest question is whether it’s worth paying for cover when you can get healthcare for free on the NHS.
The NHS does a brilliant job in helping millions of people across the country get the medical care they need. However, NHS waiting lists for treatment have become longer and longer over time, which has made private healthcare a tempting alternative for thousands of UK consumers.
There are many pros (and a few cons) with private health insurance, so it’s important to do your research and think carefully about whether this is the right policy for you. In this guide, we’re exploring the main reasons why people in the UK buy health insurance and a few drawbacks that you may not be aware of.
60-Second Summary – Is private health insurance worth it?
Private health insurance serves as a financial safety net, ensuring quick and affordable access to the best medical treatment which may take much longer to receive on the NHS.
- Private health insurance provides faster access to diagnosis and treatment, more choice in treatment plans, and access to top-quality medical treatments and specialists.
- Health insurance covers a range of medical issues, from inpatient treatments to specialist fees. However, it will not cover the cost of treating chronic conditions or pre-existing conditions, so you may still need to use the NHS for some treatments or cover the cost yourself.
- There are a range of extra perks available from UK health insurance providers and many people find that the discounts and benefits on offer actually save them money over time.
- It may be hard to work out what type of health insurance would work best for you, or which insurer will offer the right level of cover. This is where it can be useful to speak to a health insurance specialist who can offer free and friendly guidance.
Is it worth going private for healthcare?
The NHS is a free option for healthcare in the UK which is something that isn’t available in many countries. In countries like America, having health insurance is necessary for getting almost all types of medical treatment.
We’re lucky to have access to free healthcare, but the NHS has become extremely stretched over the years and particularly following the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This means that you could be waiting weeks or even months for the treatment you need as can be seen in the guidance for NHS waiting times in England found on the NHS website.
In 2023, it was reported by The Guardian that 1 in 8 UK residents will now pay for private services, rather than wait in long NHS queues for treatment. This figure is a massive increase compared to 20 or 30 years ago and shows just how much the demand for private care has increased.
Private hospitals and treatment centres will usually also be able to offer extra benefits such as more comfortable surroundings and a private room if you need to stay overnight.
What is the point of private health insurance UK?
Many people in the UK are now buying private health insurance (also known as private medical insurance or ‘PMI’).
Private health insurance plans are used to make private healthcare more affordable and accessible for thousands of people across the UK. The cost of private medical treatments can be expensive and most of us won’t have hundreds or thousands of pounds spare for just in case we get ill.
This is where having health insurance can be useful, as it ensures you will have access to the funds you need to pay for your treatment. You can also choose to mix and match NHS and private treatment if you wish, so you don’t need to claim as much on your insurance policy. The NHS has released a guide for using NHS and private care on their website to explain what you would need to and how this would work.
What does private health insurance do?
Private health insurance will help you to cover the cost of private medical treatments in the UK (and some policies may even cover treatment while abroad).
With most policies, you can make a claim once you have received an initial diagnosis through the NHS (known as primary care). The insurer will then approve and pay for the specialist treatment you need or further diagnostic tests (in some cases).
Your insurer will usually give you a set list of hospitals and specialists that you can receive treatment from, and you can choose the one that suits you best.
Low-cost policies from providers like AXA or Aviva can instead give you a short list of recommended specialists to reduce the cost of your cover. This is normally referred to as a ‘guided option’ or ‘guided specialist option’ and can be useful if you’re happy to let the insurer narrow down your options for you.
What does private health insurance cover?
Private health insurance will cover you in a range of different situations and policies can vary from insurer to insurer. If you’re not certain of what you can and can’t claim for, it’s always best to ask your insurance advisor or check your policy documents.
Even a basic policy will cover you for a range of medical issues such as:
- In patient or day patient medical treatments
- Cancer treatment (many insurers will cover you from diagnosis through to full recovery or palliative care)
- Specialist or consultant fees
- Hospital accommodation benefit (some insurers will pay for you to stay overnight if your child is receiving in patient treatment)
- Private ambulance transport (some insurers and if medically necessary)
- NHS cash benefits (if you receive in patient treatment in an NHS hospital)
- Faster referrals to specialists for your medical concerns
- Option to add on family members for extra protection
It’s possible to buy a more comprehensive policy, which would include more cover as standard such as outpatient treatment, further diagnostic tests and scans and a higher level of cancer cover. You should choose the level of cover that works best for you, and you will normally have the option to add on additional benefits to build the policy that feels right for you.
Most of the top UK insurers will include extra benefits for free for their customers such as:
- Virtual GP services
- Discounts from top UK brands
- Gym discounts
- Online customer support
- Specialised cancer care services
What are the disadvantages of private healthcare UK?
Private healthcare in the UK can be expensive, which is why health insurance was designed to make this more accessible and affordable. While these policies are very helpful, there are a few things that you generally won’t be covered for and so won’t be able to claim for.
The main drawback for private health insurance is that these policies only cover you for ‘acute’ or short-term health problems. These would be short term conditions you are expected to recover from (e.g. a heart attack). This means you normally won’t be able to claim for chronic illnesses where you require long term treatment or conditions you had before buying your policy (pre-existing medical conditions).
Certain insurers may pay out in specific situations (e.g. to treat a flare up of a condition but no further treatment when symptoms are under control). This won’t be the case for most policies though and it’s worth checking with your insurer if you aren’t sure what you are covered for.
It can be possible for your insurer to agree to cover a condition after a period of time (e.g. 2 or 5 years), if no symptoms have occurred and no treatment has been needed.
Note: Situations such as visits to A&E will also not be covered, as private health insurance isn’t designed to pay out for emergency treatment. There may also be other specific exclusions listed in your policy documents such as dangerous sports or pregnancy related care.
What are the pros and cons of private health insurance?
There are some key advantages and disadvantages to buying private health insurance that you should be aware of before buying a new policy. There are great benefits like online health support and more freedom to control your own treatment and recovery, but you should also consider the cost of these policies.
Below we have highlighted some of the main pros and cons of private health insurance policies in the UK.
|Much faster access to diagnosis and treatment than using NHS services
|More expensive compared to free NHS services (costs can also be higher based on your age or postcode)
|More choice in your treatment plan and which consultant is treating you
|Can be hard to work out which insurer will be best for you without expert advice
|You can choose when and where you receive your treatment, so it fits around your work, family commitments etc
|Won’t usually pay out for pre-existing or long term medical conditions
|Top quality medical treatments and specialists (some treatments are available before being approved for the NHS)
|There may be specific exclusions included in your policy which you need to be aware of
Is private health insurance better than the NHS?
Private health insurance isn’t necessarily ‘better’ than the NHS, as it is intended to be used as additional support and is not a replacement. Private health insurance won’t cover long term or pre-existing conditions and so you would need to use NHS services for these, even if you use health insurance for other medical issues.
Private health insurance does offer significant perks though, compared to solely relying on NHS care. With private health insurance, you have access to:
- Quicker diagnosis and faster answers to your medical questions
- The choice of 100s of private hospitals and specialists across the UK (depending on the insurer)
- More freedom to choose how you receive your care and ability to fit your treatments around your own schedule
- Extra benefits and discounts from your insurance provider which could save you money long term
What are the main extra benefits with health insurance policies?
Health insurance is a very flexible type of cover and so you can usually add or remove benefits to get the level of cover that works best for you. Some of the most popular additional benefits that insurance providers will allow you to add on includes:
- Mental health cover – This can provide a higher level of care and treatment options if you need medical advice about your mental health. Certain providers like Bupa will include this type of cover automatically, but many offer this as an optional extra.
- Dental cover – If you are worried about the cost of private dental care, you may be able to add dental benefit to your health insurance policy.
- Additional therapies cover – This is a very popular extra benefit and will help to cover the cost of seeing specialists such as physiotherapists or chiropractors if needed.
- Overseas (travel) cover – You may be able to add on cover for while you are abroad, in case you need medical care whilst working away or on holiday (similar to standard travel insurance but will only cover medical care).
- No claims discount – If you add no claims discount to your cover, you could save significantly each year if you don’t need to claim on your policy.
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Frequently asked questions about private health insurance UK
What’s the best private health insurance?
There are wide range of brilliant health insurance providers in the UK, so you can choose the one that works best for you.
We recently reviewed all the main UK health insurance providers looking at factors like value for money, policy features and customer reviews. From this we determined that the best private health insurance providers in the UK for 2024 are Aviva, The Exeter, Bupa, Vitality Health and AXA Health.
Can you still use NHS with private health insurance?
YES – You aren’t prevented from receiving NHS care just because you have health insurance or have received private care in the past.
It can be useful to use services across both the NHS and private specialists to get all the treatments that you need. You can even use NHS and private care for the same medical issue, but the NHS will prefer you to have clear separation between the two. This can be as simple as ensuring you receive private treatments at a different time/place to your NHS care.
Is it worth buying health insurance?
It’s important to think carefully about whether private health insurance is affordable for you and something that works for you and your family. While you need to consider the cost, there are a lot of benefits to health insurance which can be worth it for most people.
The convenience that health insurance provides means that you don’t need to reschedule work responsibilities, childcare or family outings around getting the treatment that you need. You will also usually have one dedicated consultant to help you through your treatment plan and access to the latest treatments and drugs available.
We fully believe that private health insurance can be worth the cost, but whether it is right for you will be a completely personal choice. For help with your main health insurance questions or to compare the best quotes, you can speak to our health insurance experts on 0800 009 6559 or click here.