Updated 17th Nov 2014 (Dental information updated)
Every country’s health system is different and coming from Australia, it took me a good couple of years to work out who I needed to see in which situation. 3 years on, I finally feel like I’m ready to write this post because I’ve managed to make use of the majority of London’s health services, which makes this much easier than just guessing or looking for the answers on Google. So here is an expat’s guide to London’s health system, the NHS, and how to actually use the country’s health services.
You can only be registered to one GP in the UK and it has to be near your residential address. To sign up, you need to fall within that clinic’s ‘catchment area’, meaning you have to live within a certain radius of the clinic (normally a couple of km’s). Once you have registered, you can only go to that clinic. You may change clinics but that means I registering from the first to join the second. These are mostly open Mon-Fri and the hours tend to be pretty annoying from 8am-6pm and you need to make appointments. Most clinics don’t let you make appointments in advance so you have to call first thing in the morning and make yourself available.
How do I choose a GP clinic? The NHS website has a fantastic feature that compares all the GP clinics in London based on people’s reviews and a scoring system. It’s a huge help when trying to find the right one for you. Click here to search & compare GP’s in your area.
What if I just need a repeat prescription? Once you have been once or twice, if you just need a prescription you can normally call and they can leave it at the desk for you to pick up at your own convenience.
What if I need a doctors certificate for taking a day off work? Most workplaces in London will only ask for a doctors certificate if you’ve been off for a number of consecutive days. I’ve never had to present one yet in my 3 and a half years here, though my jobs have been pretty relaxed so this may differ in other industries.
When you fall ill on a weekend or are too far away from your local clinic, you can go to a walk-in centre which is like a GP open to everyone, no matter where you live or where you’re registered too. You don’t need an appointment but the waiting times are often a couple of hours. Walk-In clinics are for when you have a minor illness or injury (cuts, sprains or rashes) and it can’t wait until your GP surgery is open. Avoid using it for things like the common cold or flu. Search for your closest walk-in centre here.
If something serious comes up or you need to see a specialist, your GP may refer you to the hospital. The amazing thing about the NHS is that if you need an operation, they cover it and you won’t be out of pocket. One of my family members recently went through a massive spinal operation which required some of the country’s best neurosurgeons, world-class high-tech machinery, a lot of staff and 3 weeks in a private hospital bed and we didn’t have to pay a cent. For that I will be forever thankful because in a country like America, that same operation would have set us back hundreds of thousands of dollars and even in Australia we would have had to pay a small fortune for the same quality of care.
Hospital treatment is free to people classed as ordinarily resident in the UK – this includes all those who are ‘lawfully’ living in the UK (so if you’re legally allowed to be living in London then you’re covered). This is not dependent on nationality, payment of UK taxes, National Insurance contributions, being registered with a GP, having an NHS Number, or owning property in the UK.
The A&E (Accident & Emergency Services) is the Emergency section at the hospital. If you are ever in real trouble or worried something is seriously wrong and can’t get an appointment, head to the A&E. Waiting times depend on the situation and tend to be higher at peak times like Fri & Sat nights. Search for your nearest hospital here or your nearest A&E here.
Ambulances are free in London. They are for emergency situations only. Waiting times have been known to be quite long due to high demand which is why you should only ever call one if you really need it. Call 999 for emergency services.
Family Planning & Contraception
If you use contraception then as an alternative to going to your GP clinic, you’re much better off visiting a Family Planning clinic. They allow for appointments, are much less stressful and the doctors are more specialised. You can visit these for all Pap smears, STI tests, pregnancy tests and for all forms of contraception. The best part is that it’s all free and covered by the NHS. Try the Margaret Pyke clinic in Kings Cross which is amazing, or find your nearest clinic here.
The pill is free in England and it works the same way as in Australia – you get your prescription with some repeats from your GP/Family Planning Clinic and collect from the pharmacy. All types of the pill are free, as are other methods of contraception such as IUDs and implants.
Abortions are legal in England and are also covered by the NHS. Visit your GP or Family Planning Clinic for more advice. It’s also worthwhile noting that unfortunately Northern Ireland doesn’t allow women the right to choose and abortions are illegal there.
Cost of Services
All medical costs for the above are covered by the NHS, including GP, Walk-In Centres, Family Planning Clinics, Hospitals, A&E and Ambulance services.
If you visit an NHS dental clinic then it will be cheaper than a private clinic (or free if you qualify for free care) but these tend to be of poorer quality and with longer waiting times. Here’s a breakdown of NHS dental costs. Many Londoners go to private clinics which aren’t subsidised by the NHS. If you have private medical insurance (often offered through work) then you may be able to claim some/all of your dental back. Search for your nearest NHS dentist here.
Emergencies – Call 999 for any emergency services: Police, Ambulance and Fire Brigade. Only call 999 if someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk.
Call 111 for the NHS if you urgently need medical help or advice but it’s not a life-threatening situation. You can also call NHS 111 if you’re not sure which NHS service you need.