Accessing healthcare in the UK


Sorry I’ve been away from blogging so long, it’s been a hectic few weeks given that the final exam period was two weeks long and I happened to have exams starting from the first day at 9am all the way to 6pm on the last day.

During the Christmas break I was able to go to Guatemala and Mexico and visit my family members. Understandably, all of them had lots of questions about why I moved to the UK and how studying here compared to studying in the US. What I wasn’t expecting was being asked about how the health care system works by the majority of them so I thought that would be a good blog post topic given that other prospective students and their families might be wondering about it. I’ll keep this post based on my own experiences rather than trying to make it a comprehensive guide since the NHS appears to be a very large and complex system I still don’t know much about and I doubt it can be covered in detail in a single blog post.

I first arrived in the UK in the summer, after the end of the academic year at UC Berkeley. I had 3 months worth of the medicines I take every day (primarily anti-histamines and migraine preventative medication) upon arriving, however since the academic year in the US starts before the academic year in the UK I ran out of medicine before the academic year started. My only option at the time was seeing a doctor privately to try to get a private prescription so I decided to just wait it out (which wasn’t the best of ideas).

While doing my visa application I had to pay the IHS fee in order to be able to access NHS services while studying in the UK, which i believe is roughly £150 per year of your visa duration. My visa is 4 years long so my fee ended up being around $900 (it would probably be less if I were to apply right now thanks to the exchange rate being so variable lately). Upon arriving to the UK I dropped by student services to try to figure out if I could register for the NHS before classes started and I was told I couldn’t. I got in touch with the people at the center for wellbeing and they were able to get me to register for the NHS ahead of time. I was lucky to get an appointment a few hours after registering and walked out with a prescription. While the center for wellbeing isn’t part of the NHS (as far as I know) it seems like a very good resource available for all students on campus, as it provides access to people to talk to if you have stress problems, mental health issues, eating disorders, are trying to quit smoking and various other things (I don’t have any experience with them aside from them helping me register with the NHS). I was able to take the prescription to any pharmacy so I decided to go to the Tesco pharmacy since it is about a 15 min walk away from campus. Upon getting to Tesco I was asked to pay for the prescription (the current prescription cost is £8.40 per prescription but there are various vouchers you can get that cover several months of prescriptions so it ends up being cheaper if you need more than 3 prescriptions a month, which you can see here

Pharmacies provide various services, such as flu shots and advice/prescriptions for simple problems such as colds, stomach bugs and viruses. Additionally there is also a phone service that provides advice. If you call 111 from inside the UK you’ll be asked about your symptoms with several follow up questions to try to figure out how severe your symptoms are and who to send you to. They are able to book last minute appointments with your own GP practice (apparently GPs have a specific number of appointments a week that they don’t book to be able to deal with emergencies), have another GP call you and send a prescription to a pharmacy for you to pick up, as well as tell you if you should go to a walk in center or A&E (Accidents and Emergencies, which is the equivalent of an ER in the US).

While I haven’t dealt with walk in centers (my understanding is they operate similarly to an ER but are smaller and handle less severe cases as well as things a GP would normally deal with when practices are closed and things can’t wait for the next morning for one reason or another) or A&E, my experiences with my GP practice as well as 111 have been pretty good so far. All GP appointments are free and 111 is free as well, the main things that you have to pay for out of pocket once you’ve paid the IHS fee are prescriptions and certain procedures (for example, things that are considered cosmetic rather than medically necessary), as well as non NHS GPs and specialists if you chose to see them for some reason.

The wait times for GPs aren’t too bad, the most I’ve had to wait for a routine appointment has been a week or two, and that’s because I generally prefer to be seen by the same GP always rather than with the GP that’s first available. However, wait times for things that require referrals (usually things that are handled by specialists) tend to be longer. So far I’ve only ever been referred to dermatology which was about a 6 week wait. While I accidentally missed the appointment (the appointment letter was sent to the maths department instead of me for some reason still unknown to me) the letter I received said that it was a photography clinic so high definition pictures would be taken of my affected tissue and within two days either my GP would get a diagnosis or I would get a referral to see an actual dermatologist. My understanding is that it is set up that way to cut the overall wait times from 3 months to roughly 3 weeks if you have a minor issue (the holidays happened in between me being referred and hearing back so that might have factored into my waiting time). I’m also aware of several endocrinologists and mental health services that have over a year wait.

I hope this overview of my experiences with the NHS is helpful! Feel free to reach out if you have any specific questions.