Home Healthcare Healthcare Services The UK hospital system
Last update on September 21, 2021

The UK hospital system may be different to that of your home country. You can choose between care at one of the private hospitals in the UK or at one of the public hospitals in the UK. With this guide you’ll find useful information and a list of hospitals in the country.

This guide looks at hospital healthcare in the UK and lists some of the best hospitals in the UK, including private hospitals in London and other areas of the country. UK Hospitals are classed as secondary care services in the UK, which means that you will only visit them if you are referred by a doctor or in the case of an emergency.

COVID-19 in the UK

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone. Many expats find themselves separated from family and loved ones in their home countries. As a foreigner, it is also sometimes difficult to find critical information regarding coronavirus infection rates, local measures, and restrictions, and now, thankfully, vaccinations. For general coronavirus health information in the UK, including vaccination schedules and locations, visit the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) website.

For official COVID-19 measures, rules, and restrictions in the UK, consult our guide on the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK.

Types of UK hospital

There are two general types of hospital in the UK – National Health Service (NHS) hospitals which are free, and independent hospitals run by private companies or charities which usually charge for services. NHS hospitals are run by National Health Service trusts.

Most general hospitals in the UK will offer accident and emergency (A&E), maternity services, surgery, elderly care and outpatient services. There are also a number of specialist hospitals in the UK (e.g. eye hospitals, orthopaedic hospitals, etc.).

NHS hospital

The quality and standards in UK hospitals is very good by international comparison and medical procedures will be performed at state-of-the-art levels. University hospitals in the UK will offer pioneering specialist treatment but are less accessible.

UK hospitals will admit outpatients (those that visit for treatment just for the day without needing overnight stays) and inpatients (those that will stay for a period of time e.g. for a surgical procedure or with a long-term illness). Visiting hours vary between hospitals and different wards within hospitals so you will need to check in advance before planning to visit someone.

Conditions for visiting a UK hospital

Except in an emergency, you need a referral from your doctor for treatment at a UK hospital. If you are referred to a hospital in the UK, you must make an appointment. You can choose the hospital, as well as the specialist. You can request treatment in a private hospital in the UK, although you may have to pay. Many private hospitals in the UK provide services on the NHS; check this with your doctor first.

You cannot choose where you are treated if you:

  • are accessing maternity services
  • need emergency treatment
  • receive a referral by certain services
  • are detained under the Mental Health Act
  • are on temporary release from an institution

You can use the NHS search tool to search for hospitals in the UK, consultants, surgical procedures, and departments.

You can book an appointment by phone, through your GP, or through the NHS e-referral service available here. If your treatment is non-urgent, you have the right to get treatment within 18 weeks.

After booking your UK hospital appointment, you receive an admission letter by mail. If you need to cancel or change the appointment, let the hospital know as soon as possible; otherwise, you lose your referral.

Private hospitals in London

For some UK hospital procedures, you might be asked to sign a consent form in advance to confirm that you understand the treatment. See more information on giving consent to treatment here.

All UK residents are entitled to hospital treatment. To get a referral for hospital treatment, register with a GP. See our guide to doctors in the UK for more information.

Non-residents are entitled to emergency care, maternity care, and treatment for infectious diseases and serious conditions. For other services, you need health insurance. European Union (EU), European Economic Area (EEA), and Swiss citizens need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Others need private insurance for short stays and must pay a surcharge if staying longer than six months.

See our guides to UK healthcare and the European Health Insurance Card for more information.

Finding the best UK hospital

To find the best hospitals in the UK, there are a few ratings and rankings systems you can check:

  • for the whole of the UK, you can check the world hospital ranking list which has a list of hospitals in the UK. The current highest ranked hospital in the UK is the Royal Berkshire NHS Hospital, ranked at 67 in the world
  • you can check the inspection ratings of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) who are the independent regulator of health and social care in England

See below for a list of best hospitals in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Best hospitals in London

Best hospitals in Birmingham

Best hospitals in Manchester

Best hospitals in Newcastle

Best hospitals in Sheffield

Best hospitals in Liverpool

Best hospitals in Bristol

Best hospitals in Edinburgh

Best hospitals in Glasgow

Best hospitals in Cardiff

Best hospitals in Swansea

Best hospitals in Belfast

UK hospital costs

NHS hospital care is free to all UK residents. Some services such as emergency services are free to all including non-residents. Non-residents will need the relevant health insurance to access non-urgent hospital care in NHS hospitals in the UK to avoid being charged.

Private hospitals UK

Private insurance for hospital treatment in the UK

If you opt for private treatment, UK hospital costs will vary depending on treatment required, hospital provider and region. Consultation sessions are normally around £200 and surgical procedures can range from around £1000 to over £10,000. Nuffield Health, who are one of the largest private hospital providers in the UK, have individual pricing lists for each of their 31 hospitals in the UK. Surgery such as a back operation costs just over £2000. Some of the large expat-friendly international health insurance companies which provide coverage in the UK are:

Emergencies in the UK

Emergency treatment is provided free to everyone in NHS hospitals in the UK. Most hospitals have A&E departments to deal with emergency or life-threatening situations.

If you need urgent treatment or advice in the UK, you can do one of the following:

  • call 111 for NHS medical help or advice if the situation is urgent but not life-threatening
  • call 999 for emergency services if you need an ambulance, the police or the fire service
  • visit the A&E department of your local hospital if your situation is urgent and potentially life-threatening
  • go to an NHS walk-in centre, minor injuries unit or urgent care centre
  • visit an out-of-hours pharmacist for advice on common or minor illnesses
  • call 116 123 to speak to the Samaritans if you need urgent mental health support. You can also contact your local crisis support service which can be found here.

Note: Each region of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has its own NHS body. The information here is mostly regarding NHS England. You can find out more about the NHS in other regions on the websites for NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and NHS Northern Ireland.

Further information