Discover everything you need to know about visiting a GP in the UK, including making appointments, arranging health insurance, and more.
Ask any Brit what makes them proud about their country and chances are they will say the National Health Service (NHS). That said, many will acknowledge that the system is under severe strain. Luckily for expats, though, state healthcare is free and grants access to GPs in the UK.
To help you learn how to access the system for which the country is renowned, this guide includes the following information:
- GPs in the UK
- Who can access GPs in the UK?
- Finding a GP
- Registering with a GP
- Making an appointment with a GP
- Medical specialists in the UK
- Accessing private specialists and doctors
- The cost of doctors and specialists
- Health insurance in the UK
- Doctor prescriptions in the UK
- Medical tests in the UK
- Emergency doctors in the UK
- Making a complaint about a doctor or specialist
- Useful UK medical phrases
- Useful resources
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GPs in the UK
Public healthcare in the UK is free through the NHS and covers everything from routine check-ups to emergency surgery. And even if you are able to pay for the best treatment available, your healthcare journey usually starts with a visit to your GP. However, according to the British Medical Association (BMA), the number of doctors working in England is declining. Indeed, there were 27,600 full-time equivalent GPs in June 2021, representing a reduction of around 1,800 since 2014.
The BMA now claims that GP surgeries are experiencing a growing strain; with rising demand, staff recruitment issues, and patients having to wait longer for appointments. Currently, there is on average one GP for every 2,038 people in England, however, this varies significantly across the country. For example, the inews reports that while there is one GP for every 1,614 patients in Liverpool, there is only one for every 2,761 in Hull.
GPs in the UK normally operate from stand-alone practices. These are commonly known as doctors’ surgeries and are usually the first contact for anyone with a health concern.
- give health advice
- prescribe drugs and treatments for conditions that don’t require specialist care
- conduct routine health checks
- provide vaccinations
- refer patients to hospitals or consultants for further diagnosis, tests, investigation, and treatment
Many GP practices also have links to health centers where other medical practitioners are located. Typically, surgeries are open from 08:00 to 18:30 from Monday to Friday.
Patients with private health insurance, or those who intend to pay to avoid a long wait for free treatment, usually need to seek a referral from a GP before they can see a private specialist consultant.
Who can access GPs in the UK?
If you are living in the UK, you can access the full range of free health services provided by the NHS. However, you will first need to register with a general practitioner (GP). Notably, the NHS advises that registration is free and that you don’t need to provide proof of your address or your immigration status, ID, or NHS number.
The NHS entitlements: migrant health guide explains who can claim what post-Brexit. Essentially, short-term visitors from the EU can continue to access medically necessary healthcare through the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme or planned healthcare through the S2 funding route.
Short-term visitors from the EU (including former UK residents) who are not covered by the new UK-EU agreement on reciprocal healthcare may need to pay for NHS treatment. Notably, there are no changes to the healthcare entitlements of short-term visitors who are covered by bilateral healthcare agreements between the UK and countries outside the EU; this includes Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.
Citizens of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland who moved to the UK from 1 January 2021 will need to pay the immigration health surcharge as part of any visa application.
Non-residents may need to pay for certain NHS services if they have the means to pay. However, the NHS advises that treatment in accident and emergency departments (A&E) and at GP surgeries will always be free. It ensures that “urgent or immediately necessary treatment will always be provided, regardless of an individual’s ability or willingness to pay for that treatment.”
Finding a GP
Fortunately, finding a GP in the UK is fairly straightforward. You can simply use a search engine to find the options closest to you. Alternatively, you can enter your location or postcode in the NHS Find a GP tool to look for GP practices within a few miles. While patients usually register with a practice within their immediate locality, it is possible to choose one further away if it offers specific services that you require or if it is closer to your workplace.
All doctors who practice in the UK must be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC). It is also possible to search for a doctor and look at their record on the Medical Register. This includes details of each doctor’s training, registration status, and other useful information. There are currently 348,988 doctors listed on the register including all specialists, hospital doctors, and those working outside the NHS.
The NHS also has an online service that shows patient feedback on each GP surgery. This provides satisfaction ratings for factors such as access to their preferred doctor, waiting times, ease of making an appointment, and even the helpfulness of receptionists.
Registering with a GP
The NHS website provides a useful guide on how to register with a GP. Thankfully, it isn’t a complicated process and once you are registered, you will be able to access all the services that the NHS has at its disposal.
While you can go to a doctor’s surgery as an unregistered patient, for example as a new arrival in the UK in need of medical attention, the NHS advises that you might need to register as a temporary resident or permanent patient if you need treatment for more than 14 days. Notably, you can register as a temporary resident for up to three months.
Expats staying in the UK for extended periods are advised to make registration a priority. They will first need to identify a surgery that suits their needs and then call or email them to ask to be registered as a patient. You can download a GMS1 registration form if you are asked to complete one. But remember, you don’t need to provide proof of ID to register with a GP. That said, it might help if you can present one or more of the following:
- birth certificate
- HC2 certificate
- rough sleepers’ identity badge
- hostel or accommodation registration or mail forwarding letter
Note: if you are homeless, you can provide a temporary address, such as a friend’s address, a day center, or the GP surgery address. Help to fill in forms will be available for those who need it, too. And finally, all members of a single family must register separately.
Making an appointment with a GP
While you can see a GP for free in the UK, you will need to make an appointment. That said, patients found it difficult, and at times impossible, to see a GP in person during the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. And as of Autumn 2021, many doctors are still conducting consultations remotely by phone or online.
The NHS provides guidelines for making an appointment with a GP. You can either visit the surgery and talk to the receptionist, call them up, or make an appointment online via the myGP app. It is important to be aware that some patients will have to wait longer than others for an appointment depending on the type of problem, their age, and their condition.
However, if patients require urgent attention, they can go directly to their nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) department. The surgery receptionist may direct you to a practice nurse or other healthcare professionals to speed up the process.
What to expect when visiting a GP in the UK
Once you have registered with a GP surgery and made an appointment, you simply need to let the receptionist know when you have arrived. You will be told to sit in a waiting area until they call you. You don’t need to bring any documentation or identification with you after your initial visit. This is because all your records will be available to the doctor. The NHS advises patients to prepare for their consultation and to write down a list of symptoms and questions to ask the doctor.
GPs typically allocate approximately 10 minutes per consultation. However, you may need to wait beyond your appointment time if previous consultations have run over. The Guardian is among those to report that doctors would like more time to spend with each patient as they think 10 minutes is insufficient.
Fortunately, most GPs in the UK now offer online consultations and video consultations which can save you time waiting for a face-to-face appointment. This also means that you don’t need to go to a GP surgery.
Using an online doctor in the UK
As an alternative to the traditional method of finding your local GP practice, you can also register with an online doctor in the UK. These online platforms let you speak to a fully-accredited medical professional through video consultations. Depending on the platform, they also offer a number of other services, such as prescription delivery and 24/7 access to doctors. Online doctors in the UK include:
Requesting a home visit
If you are unable to visit your surgery for medical reasons, you can ask your GP to make a home visit. That said, this service is usually reserved for the elderly or the very young. If possible, you should try to call your GP in the morning if you think you will need a visit on the same day.
The independent charity Citizens Advice offers advice about healthcare services in the UK, including patients’ rights. It says that patients can’t insist on a home visit and it is up to the GP to decide how urgently a visit is needed. However, a community nurse may visit patients at home. Furthermore, health visitors will normally attend to women who have just had a baby at home.
Medical specialists in the UK
All UK residents are eligible for free specialist care according to their needs. In fact, a study by the General Medical Council (GMC) shows that only the US and Australia have more recognized medical specialties than the UK. This means that patients have access to a greater variety of specialist medical care in the UK than elsewhere in Europe.
There are officially 61 specialist disciplines covered by trained doctors in the UK, which is almost twice as many as the Netherlands, for example. The GMC provides a list of the recognized specialties that are being practiced; ranging from oncology to plastic surgery, mental health to tropical medicine, and dermatology to reproductive health, to name a few.
Regulatory bodies in the UK
Medical specialists working in the UK are highly regulated. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the national independent regulator that covers all public and private health and social care settings. It works in partnership with a large number of professional bodies to regulate all aspects of health care. These include:
- General Medical Council (GMC) – regulates doctors
- General Dental Council (GDC) – regulates dental professionals in the UK; including dentists, dental nurses, dental technicians, clinical dental technicians, dental hygienists, dental therapists, and orthodontic therapists
- General Optical Council (GOC) – regulates optometrists, dispensing opticians, student opticians, and optical businesses
- Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) – regulates nurses and midwives
- General Chiropractic Council (GCC) – regulates chiropractors
- General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) – regulates osteopaths
- Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) – regulates 15 healthcare professionals including arts therapists, biomedical scientists, chiropodists/podiatrists, clinical scientists, dieticians, hearing aid dispensers, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, paramedics, physiotherapists, practitioner psychologists, prosthetists/orthotists, radiographers, and speech and language therapists
- General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) – the regulator for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and pharmacy premises in Great Britain
Finding a specialist in the UK
Typically, patients are referred to a specialist by their GP. The NHS advises that if you wish to see a private specialist, you can ask your GP for a letter of referral. The letter will give the specialist essential background information, such as your medical history and the reason for the referral.
If your GP refers you to a specialist or another health professional, such as a dentist or ophthalmologist, you may have the right to choose which hospital in England to go to for your first outpatient appointment. You can also choose which consultant-led team will be in charge of your treatment.
Notably, while your GP will recommend a specialist or hospital, you are free to seek out your own to inquire if they are able to provide treatment. The NHS provides an online search tool to help patients choose one by name, location, and specialty.
Waiting times for seeing a specialist
Waiting times for specialist care in the NHS will vary depending on the type of care you require. For example, the maximum waiting time for specialist cancer treatment is two weeks, as mandated by law. However, under the NHS Constitution, if your GP refers you for a condition that is not urgent, you have the right to start treatment, led by a consultant, within 18 weeks from when you are referred.
Accessing private specialists and doctors
Although it is small in comparison to other countries, the UK does have a private healthcare network with plenty of options for those who want to bypass the NHS. In fact, the BMA private practice committee estimates that 28,000 consultants undertake some private practice in the UK.
Furthermore, the independent health care research organization, The Commonwealth Fund, estimates there are 515 private hospitals in the UK. You can find performance data on private hospitals and consultants by using online comparison services such as PHIN and netdoctor.
A private healthcare provider can let you know how much your treatment will cost outside the NHS. They will also be able to make recommendations to help you fast-track your treatment and recommend doctors and specialists that are close by. In order to access private healthcare in the UK< you can either opt to take out private health insurance as a precaution or choose to pay for each individual consultation or treatment. You can read more about this further down the guide.
The cost of doctors and specialists
Unless you opt to go private, all the treatment you receive in the UK is free. This includes the cost of check-ups, X-rays, operations, and drugs prescribed during hospital treatment and follow-up consultations. The only costs you need to pay are for prescriptions from your GP (see the separate section on doctor prescriptions in the UK).
However, if you opt for private healthcare, the cost will naturally depend on the level of treatment you require. For example, one health insurance provider quotes £70 for a 15-minute appointment with a GP, rising to £128 for a half-hour consultation. And further investigations, such as blood tests, X-rays, or MRI scans, will cost extra.
In August 2021, myTribe Insurance compared the prices for a range of procedures conducted at 26 private hospitals in the UK. It found that the average costs were:
- Wisdom tooth removal: £2,350
- Hip replacement: £12,198
- Knee replacement:£13,205
- Gall bladder removal: £6,199
- Cataract surgery: £2,518
- Slipped disc removal: £7,988
- Laparoscopic hernia repair: £3,352
- Colonoscopy: £2,063
- Gastroscopy: £1,670
- Carpal tunnel release: £1,993
- Tonsillectomy: £2,772
- Knee arthroscopy: £3,673
- Abdominal hysterectomy: £7,089
- Shoulder replacement: £11,020
Health insurance in the UK
While most people in the UK rely on the NHS for all their health needs, about 10% opt to take out private health insurance. This is because it can help them get quicker and more convenient treatment for some non-urgent conditions. Some UK employers also provide private health cover for their staff.
As an expat, you are under no obligation to take out health insurance. However, you might find it attractive as your annual premium will help you access a greater choice of GPs and hospital facilities and a wider range of treatments; including dental work and complementary therapies. Private hospitals also offer the advantage of being more comfortable, less crowded, and serving a better choice of food.
There are a number of private healthcare providers to choose from in the UK. These include:
Notably, costs will vary depending on the level of coverage you choose as well as the amount of excess. Factors such as your age, where you live, whether you have any existing medical conditions, or smoke will also determine the costs of coverage. Therefore, it’s a good idea to shop around for the type of cover that best suits your circumstances and the price you want to pay. Policies are also available for families as well as individuals.
Doctor prescriptions in the UK
While your visit to an NHS GP is free, you will most likely have to pay for any medicines that the doctor prescribes. Some items, such as contraceptives and drugs prescribed for hospital in-patients, are always free. Otherwise, you will have to pay £9.35 for each item on your prescription. The NHS guide to prescription charges explains this further.
Importantly, prescription charges do not apply to the following people:
- children under 15
- full-time students up to 18
- people over 60
- people with low incomes
- pregnant women and women who have given birth in the past 12 months
- people with cancer and certain other long-term conditions or disabilities
While some practices dispense the medicines they prescribe, others will ask you to take your prescription to a pharmacy. This is more commonly known as a chemist in the UK.
If a drug is prescribed for a condition that requires long-term treatment, you will be able to order repeat prescriptions online. However, you will need an NHS login to use this service. It is also possible to lower the cost of multiple prescriptions by buying a prescription season ticket; this is known as a Prescription Prepayment Certificate (PPC).
The overprescribing of medicines in the UK
Some have accused NHS doctors of being too quick to prescribe drugs. For instance, in September 2021, the BBC reported that a government review had concluded that many patients were prescribed unnecessary treatments and that some were being harmed by over-prescription.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises that GPs only prescribe medicines when they are necessary. Furthermore, in all cases, they should consider the benefit of administering the medicine in relation to the risk involved.
As in most countries, it is possible to buy certain medicines over the counter at a chemist or supermarket in the UK. However, the NHS advises that these are mostly limited to items such as simple painkillers and cough remedies. Notably, you can only acquire antibiotics with a prescription.
Medical tests in the UK
Once you have registered with a GP, you will likely be asked to take a health check. A doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or other health professional will conduct this. You will need to answer a series of questions about your general health. The NHS advises that you will also have your blood pressure tested and a blood test to check your cholesterol and blood sugar. Other checks may be made depending on your medical history and risk factors.
The NHS recommends that all patients should undergo this type of health check every five years. If you are over 40, you will also receive an invitation from your GP. Your doctor will schedule tests more regularly if they identify any health issues.
They will also conduct non-routine tests for specific problems. For example, if a doctor thinks that you have a heart problem, a specially trained healthcare professional can carry out an electrocardiogram at a hospital, clinic, or GP surgery. The doctor normally delivers the result directly to the patient by phone call or in person. If tests are carried out away from the surgery, the results are normally sent to the doctor who asked for them. They will then give them to the patient.
Emergency doctors in the UK
Everyone in the UK is entitled to free emergency medical assistance and there is a comprehensive system in place to ensure that you can get the help you need at any time of day or night.
In life-threatening situations, you should call 999 for an ambulance. If urgent care is required, you can simply attend the nearest Accident and Emergency department (A&E). No appointment is necessary.
For less critical conditions, you can access out-of-hours doctor services (from 18:30 to 08:00 on weekdays, weekends, and bank holidays) by calling your own GP surgery. You will be redirected to where you can get help.
Alternatively, you can call 111 or use the NHS 111 online service.
How NHS 111 works
You will need to answer questions about your symptoms on the website, or by speaking to a fully-trained adviser on the phone. You can ask for a translator if you need one.
Depending on the situation, you will:
- find out what local service can help you
- be connected to a nurse, emergency dentist, pharmacist, or GP
- get a face-to-face appointment if you need one
- be given an arrival time if you need to go to A&E; this might mean you spend less time there
- be told how to get any medicine you need
- get self-care advice
For urgent dental treatment, you should call your dentist or use the NHS 111 online service if you can’t reach them or you don’t have one.
You can also visit an urgent care service, such as an NHS walk-in center, urgent care center, or minor injuries unit. These can provide treatment for minor injuries or illnesses, such as cuts, bruises, and rashes.
Making a complaint about a doctor or specialist
If you are unhappy about the treatment you have received from a doctor, specialist, or any aspect of NHS care, you have the right to make a formal complaint. The NHS website has a section about how to complain, who can help you through the process, who to write to, and what to expect.
While there is no set time frame for an outcome, you should receive an acknowledgment that your complaint has been received within three working days. If the response is delayed for any reason, you should be kept informed. If you made a complaint but do not receive a response or decision for more than six months, you should be told the reason for the delay. Once your complaint has been investigated, you will receive a written response.
The response should set out the findings and, where appropriate, provide apologies and information about what is being done as a result of your complaint. It should also include information about how the complaint has been handled and details of your right to take your complaint to the relevant ombudsman.
Reasons to complain about a GP
Free help is also available from Citizens Advice, which advises that you can make a complaint about any aspect of a GP’s care. This includes:
- not being able to get an appointment to see your GP; the government target is that you should be able to get an appointment for an urgent medical problem within 48 hours
- an incorrect diagnosis
- incorrect treatment
- problems with your GP out-of-hours service
- there’s been an unreasonable delay in diagnosis or treatment
- there’s been an unreasonable delay in telling you the results of tests
- your GP ignores important symptoms
- bad communication
- your GP doesn’t provide appropriate pain relief
- clinical negligence resulting in personal injury
- the behavior of staff at your GP surgery
If you are unhappy with the response to a complaint, you can call 0345 015 4033 or visit the Ombudsman website to find more information and to ask the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to investigate.
Useful UK medical phrases
Acronyms are used widely in healthcare and can be confusing even for native English speakers. To help you navigate these terms, netdoctor has published a comprehensive guide to NHS health service terminology that you may encounter.