You may be surprised at how laissez-faire Brits are about their health coverage. “No need to worry, the National Health Service (NHS) will take care of us all! It might take a little longer, but it was good enough for our parents, so it will work for us too. We’ll complain about it anyway, but deep down we’re sure it’s the best thing since sliced bread.” Is it?
Everyone who has the intention of (legally) residing in the UK for more than 6 months has a right to free health-care via the NHS. Once you have a permanent address, the first thing you will need to do is locate your nearest GP (General Practicioner). Her office is most likely called a “Surgery”, but could also be a “Medical Centre”. This NHS website will help you – read through the patient reviews, and also take a peak at doctor-to-patient ratios. Ultimately, you will need to pick someone fairly nearby as registration is usually restricted to distance (they will tell you if you are beyond their catchment area). Then pay your surgery of choice a visit. The receptionist will hand you a multi-page form to complete at home. Fill it in, return armed also with a) your passport, and b) a recent proof of address (bank statement, utility bill) – that’s it, you’re in.
If you have children, you may end up wringing your hands in desperation as you attempt to fill in their registration forms – how on Earth will you detangle the immunisation record to fit into the list? US vaccinations are given in different combinations and at different intervals. I tried my best, but in the end decided the only responsible solution was to hand in a copy of my children’s US vaccination records. [The bulldog receptionist let me, but only because it was an “official copy” – well, not really, it was a print-out of the Kaiser Permanente online patient records. Alternatively, I could just have made up random dates on the form….]
To note: the only vaccination I came across that was required in the UK, but not in the US, was meningitis (for school-age children). It’s a fairly painful one, so expect some tears!
If you need medical attention before you have the chance to register with a GP: don’t worry, the NHS will help you. If it’s an emergency, go to the Accidents & Emergency (A&E) department at the nearest hospital. If it’s not life threatening, but you haven’t been able to see past your tonsils in a week and are yearning for some tasty penicillin, go to a drop-in centre. Call ahead – the best time to go may be in the evenings, as that may be the best time to encounter a doctor (rather important if you need a prescription). During the day, some centres are manned by nurses, who tend to be very good at assessing your problem, and excellent at TLC.
My view of the NHS service? It’s not nearly as plush as Kaiser Permanente was in the US (which is hardly considered a top-of-the-range organisation). But it works. If you are sick, you will get help. Many point out that it’s free – well, it is, but you are paying rather high taxes for this priveledge…
On the preventative side however, e.g. yearly physical check ups, the NHS service is non-existent. And, if you are concerned about your health, go to see your doctor, and turn out to not actually be sick, you may feel be subjected to a rather dismissive almost scolding commentary – “Why are you here? How silly! You are taking away valuable time, there are properly sick people out there to look after!” (not literally, but that’s the gist of it). My very own personal experience, but I have been through 4 GPs in my UK life, and have found this a pervasive attitude.
I’ll cover private health insurance, and NHS check ups for children in a later post. Until then, be well!