• Health insurance and care for expats in the UK Sep 16, 2020
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    Having good and reliable healthcare is vital, not just in one's own country, but also when traveling abroad. Millions of migrant workers live and work in the UK. Understanding the country's healthcare system and how to best utilize it is important for these expats. If you're new to the UK and the healthcare system seems unfamiliar, here are a few ideas that can help simplify things.

    The HNS

    Public healthcare in the UK is available through the National Health Service (NHS). This is the country's taxpayer-funded universal healthcare program. NHS addresses all primary health complications - from doctors' appointments to emergency surgeries. Anyone with NHS cover can get access to a general practitioner (GP). Expats usually need to furnish a proof of identification in addition to their NHS cards. Acceptable ID proofs are passports, driving licences, application registration cards (ARCs), and Home Office letters.

    Expats should make it a priority to enrol for an NHS number immediately upon arriving in the UK. To enrol one must make an appointment for an interview. The process requires some paperwork and takes a few weeks, after which the applicant receives an NHS number via email. Note that without NHS emergency hospital treatment is free in the UK, but routine appointments with a GP are not. Also, secondary healthcare services such as specialist consulting are generally not provided by the NHS.

    Speed of access

    Owing to its ‘access for all’ model the NHS is infamous for long waiting times. For example, patients may have to wait as long as 6 weeks for diagnostic tests and investigations, and 12 weeks for new outpatient appointments. According to a 2019 study by The Health Foundation the delays are owed to the problem of insufficient funds to run the system. Here’s where having a supplementary health insurance can come in handy.

    Private health insurance

    In addition to NHS many expats in the UK also subscribe to private health insurance policies. In most cases these are a part of employer-sponsored insurance packages. Employers and expats share the costs of private insurance. The percentage varies according to the insurance plan and terms of the employment contract. Expats sometimes also pay directly for their private (non-NHS) treatments.

    Expats can readily verify the quality of treatments offered by privately run health facilities. The Care Quality Commission is an independent regulator of private hospitals. It regularly publishes reports about private hospital standards and their quality control. Private healthcare providers in the UK include groups such as the HCA, which has 6 hospitals across London and 1 in Manchester. These hospitals are well-equipped to offer ICU, paediatric, and palliative care. Other services available via private insurance include Accident & Emergency (A&E) care, sexual health services, maternity, and specialist services.

    International medical insurance

    Expats planning to travel to the UK can easily purchase medical insurance beforehand by paying via an international money transfer. International medical insurance is provided by organizations such as the Cigna Global Medical. Cigna has its headquarters in Glasgow. Their health insurance covers hospital stays, treatments, specialist consultations, and so on. US citizens in the UK can consider global health insurers such as GeoBlue Xplorer. In addition to providing global health cover some insurers offer expats up to 9 months of cover back in the US.

    Emergency care

    Expats and others can purchase prescriptions medicines from pharmacies across the UK, or buy online on sites such as UKMeds. Expats entering the UK are not legally required to be vaccinated. It is however advisable to routinely take vaccinations for common threats such as flu, measles, chicken pox, and mumps prior to arrival.

    Urgent and Emergency Care (UEC) services are provided by both government and private healthcare providers. The emergency phone number in the UK is 999. Expats can also dial the European emergency number 112 in case of high alert medical crises. The Elective and Emergency Care (EEC) handles urgent medical situations in conjunction with the NHS.


    Healthcare prices can depend on a number of factors such as the type of treatment and location of the hospital. Costs fluctuate less for generic treatments and more for specialized treatments. In 2018 The Telegraph reported that expenditure on private medical care had increased from GBP 454 million in 2012 to GBP 701 million in 2016. This represented an increase of 53% over 4 years. The Office for National Statistics reports that the average cost of healthcare in the UK is GBP 1,435 per person per year, or about GBP 120 per month.
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