Home Healthcare Women's Health A guide to women’s healthcare in the UK
Last update on November 20, 2019
Written by Sophie Pettit

This guide explains everything you need to know about women’s healthcare in the UK, and how to access it via the public and private healthcare systems.

For women planning on moving to the United Kingdom, one of the first things they might want to look into is women’s healthcare in the UK. Essentially, there are two systems which are available to residents and expats; private, which can be paid for or assessed through private insurance coverage; and public, which is provided by the National Health Service (NHS) and free, depending on your residential status.

This helpful guide explains everything you need to know about women’s healthcare in the UK, and how to access it, whether via the NHS or the private healthcare system:

Healthcare options for women in the UK

Generally speaking, the UK is praised for its state-funded NHS, which guarantees free care for all, and covers everything from ambulance rides and emergency room visits to long hospital stays, surgery, and ongoing treatment. Read our guide on the National Health Service and health insurance in the UK for more information on this.

When it comes to healthcare for women, the NHS currently provides a range of services ranging from doctor’s appointments to obstetrics and gynaecology, to cervical screenings, emergency surgery, and so on. You can search the services available in your local area on the NHS website.

Despite the quality and breadth of care offered to women by the NHS in the UK, it is well known that resources in the public healthcare system can be stretched and waiting lists are often long. For instance, it can take around three weeks to be seen by your local doctor and around 18 weeks to get an appointment at a hospital for non-urgent treatment.

This factor has lead some women in the UK to take out private health insurance policies, which can offer quicker access to specialists, better facilities, and much shorter waiting times. We will explain more about this later, but first, who is eligible for free public healthcare in the UK? 

Accessing women’s healthcare services in the UK

Women who are relocating to the UK from a European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland, will be pleased to know that they are entitled to free NHS care by using their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which needs to be shown when they require medical assistance. Women who are moving from outside of the EEA, however, will need to be considered an ‘ordinary resident’ and must be given the immigration status of ‘indefinite leave to remain’.

If you have not been given indefinite leave to remain in the UK, you will need to take out private health insurance to gain access to healthcare. This is an important factor to consider, given that if you do not have health insurance and need medical treatment, you will be charged at 150% of the standard NHS tariff for any care you receive in a hospital. This can be a costly business and you will usually need to pay these fees in advance.

Some of the largest private health insurance companies in the UK include:

Insurance for women’s healthcare in the UK

If you take out health insurance in the UK, this can pay for private medical treatment if you are ill or injured after you take out the policy. Health insurance can also cover a range of treatments that, for various reasons, are not available for free on the NHS.

Before you move to the UK and take out a healthcare plan, it’s important to consider what medical care and treatments you will need your health insurance to cover, for example, if you plan on having children you might want it to include obstetrics and gynaecology.

It is important to note that covering serious illnesses like cancer or treatment for pre-existing conditions like asthma could make your private medical insurance more expensive. But it could be worth it if you need private healthcare for these conditions.

Private health insurance policies come with two mains costs: the premium and the excess,  and are generally available on both a personal and family basis. The premiums will depend on your level of cover, lifestyle, age, and any pre-existing medical conditions that you might have. Healthcare plans usually operate on an excess basis, meaning you will need to pay a proportion of the cost when you need to use your insurance. Many UK employers include subsidized or tax-only healthcare cover in their benefits packages, so this is worth looking into as well.

What the NHS covers

As mentioned before, a wide variety of care and treatment is provided for women, for free, on the NHS. If you require medical advice for specific women’s health issues, you can attend a well woman clinic which many general practitioners provide. Here you may be seen by a female doctor or practice nurse, who can provide advice on issues such as gynaecological, cervical screening, menopause, and emergency contraception. You can also discuss your general health with the doctor or nurse, and have your weight, cholesterol, urine, and blood pressure checked.

Some public hospitals also provide well woman clinics, which don’t require a referral letter from your GP, and you can ask your local surgery for more information about this.

If neither your GP surgery nor local hospital runs a well woman clinic, however, many practice nurses are able to give breast cancer awareness advice, carry out cervical screening tests, and provide you with information and advice about contraception and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Private health organisations also run well woman clinics and carry out extensive health checks for a fee, and you can find details of private health clinics by searching online.

How to find a gynaecologist in the UK 

As previously mentioned, gynaecology services are available on the NHS, and you are entitled to ask your GP for a referral to see one. Your GP may, however, ask you to try a variety of treatments before they refer you, to first see whether your condition improves. You can search for gynaecology services in your local area on the NHS website.

If you are referred to a gynaecologist by your GP, you can choose which specialist you see and which hospital you attend for your first outpatient appointment. You will then be treated by that consultant’s team. Once you have decided which specialist and hospital you want to attend, you can either book an appointment through your GP while you are at the surgery, or online through the NHS e-Referral Service, using the appointment request letter from your GP. You can also phone the NHS e-Referral Service line on 0345 608 8888 (open Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, and weekends and bank holidays, 8am to 4pm). Under the NHS, you have the right to start treatment, led by a consultant, within 18 weeks from when you are referred, unless you want to wait longer or waiting longer is clinically right for you.

If you want to see a private gynaecologist, i.e. one who is not available on the NHS and can provide a higher level of service, such as more flexible appointment slots, shorter waiting times, a quicker turnaround for test results, and a higher quality of facilities, you are still required to get a letter of referral from your GP. Gynaecology care is normally covered by private health insurance, but is it advisable to check with your insurance provider first, as the cost of private gynaecology services can amount to a hefty sum, depending on what care and treatment you require.

Sexual health in the UK

Sexual health services are free and available to everyone in the UK, regardless of sex, age, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation. Depending on where you live, services and advice may be available from: sexual health clinics (which can also be called family planning, genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual and reproductive health clinics), GPs, some pharmacies, and young people’s services.

A sexual health clinic can give you advice about both sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraception. Here you can receive information on how to protect yourself from STIs, get tested for them, and gain information and access to different types of contraception, including emergency contraception.

If you visit a sexual health service for the first time, you are usually asked to fill in a form with your name and contact details. During your consultation, you may be asked some personal questions, such as your medical and sexual history, what methods of contraception you use, and other questions about your sex life and sexual partners. If you need to be tested for STIs, you may need to provide a blood or urine sample. Depending on what the problem is, some women may also need to have a vaginal exam, and men may need to have some samples taken from their penis.

All information regarding your visit will be treated confidentially and will not be shared with anyone outside the sexual health service without your permission, including your GP. If you have been sexually assaulted, you may be offered a specialist service and help with reporting the assault to the police, if you choose to. 

Access to women’s contraception in the UK

There are currently 15 methods of birth control available on the NHS. These are free to anyone who is eligible for public healthcare, even if they are under 16 years of age.

These methods include:

  • Caps or diaphragms
  • Combined pill
  • Condoms
  • Contraceptive implant
  • Contraceptive injection
  • Contraceptive patch
  • Female condoms
  • IUD (intrauterine device or coil)
  • IUS (intrauterine system or hormonal coil)
  • Natural family planning (fertility awareness)
  • Progestogen-only pill
  • Vaginal ring
  • Female sterilization
  • Male sterilization (vasectomy)

Once you have read all the information about these various birth control methods, how they work, their effectiveness, and possible side effects, you can go to your GP or local contraceptive (or family planning) clinic to discuss your options and decide on the most suitable one for you.

You can get all contraception free of charge, even if you are under 16, from contraception clinics, sexual health or GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinics, some GP surgeries and young people’s services, and pharmacies in your local area.

Emergency contraception

There are two methods of emergency contraception available for free on the NHS:

  • The emergency contraceptive pill – or “morning-after pill” – known as Levonelle or ellaOne
  • The copper IUD (intrauterine device, or coil)

You can get both Levonelle and ellaOne free of charge from contraception clinics, brook centres, most sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics, most NHS walk-in centres and minor injuries units, most GP surgeries, and some hospital accident and emergency (A&E) departments.

You can also buy Levonelle and ellaOne from most pharmacies, and from some organisations such as BPAS or Marie Stopes. Levonelle can be taken within 72 hours (three days) of having unprotected sex, but it is most effective when taken within 12 hours of intercourse. Prices vary, but it is likely to cost around £25. You need to be 16 or over to buy Levonelle, and girls under 16 years of age can only get Levonelle with a prescription from their doctor.

The IUD is available from contraception clinics, brook centres, most sexual health or GUM clinics, and most GP surgeries. This is the most effective form of emergency contraception, however, because it is placed inside your womb, it must be fitted by a doctor or nurse, and within five days of having unprotected sex or up to five days after you ovulate (if you are able to calculate this). You can keep the IUD in as your regular method of contraception, or a doctor or nurse can remove it during your next period. You can find out more about the morning after pill and IUD on the NHS website.

Maternity care services in the UK

The NHS provides care throughout the three stages of giving birth in the UK: prenatal, delivery, and aftercare. The NHS is the standard bearer for women having a baby in the UK, but home births are also possible, as are private clinics. If you want to go private or aren’t entitled to receive free NHS treatment in the UK, you will need private health insurance to cover your maternity costs.

You can find out everything you need to know about giving birth in the UK in our UK pregnancy guide, including information about registering your baby in the UK, gaining British citizenship, and UK maternity and paternity leave and pay.

Breastfeeding in the UK

The UK currently has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe, with only 34% of babies receiving some breast milk at six months, compared with 49% in the US and 71% in Norway.

Research shows that breastfeeding rates in the UK decrease markedly over the first weeks following birth, with figures in 2015/16 showing that while almost three quarters of mothers started breastfeeding (73.1%), this fell to 43.2% at six to eight weeks.

This decline may be due to mothers experiencing practical problems in establishing breastfeeding, and failing to access or receive adequate practical support. As a result, many turn to baby formula which carries its own set of health concerns. Societal attitudes towards breastfeeding may also have an impact on these figures, with many women being made to feel uncomfortable about feeding in public or in the presence of peers and family members.

Read our article on views on breastfeeding around the world for more information on this topic.

Fertility treatments in the UK

The NHS currently offers IVF treatment for women who meet specific criteria, established by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). If tests show that IVF is the only treatment likely to help a woman get pregnant, and she meets the requirements, then she will be referred straight away.

The current criteria specifies that women under the age of 40 should be offered three cycles of IVF treatment on the NHS if they:

  • Have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years
  • Have not been able to get pregnant after 12 cycles of artificial insemination

It is worth noting that if a woman turns 40 during treatment, the current cycle will be completed, but further cycles will not be offered.

The NICE guidelines also state that women aged between 40 and 42 should be offered one cycle of IVF on the NHS if all of the following criteria are met:

  • They have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years, or haven’t been able to get pregnant after 12 cycles of artificial insemination
  • They have never had IVF treatment before
  • They show no evidence of low ovarian reserve (where eggs in your ovaries are low in number or quality)
  • They have been informed of the additional implications of IVF and pregnancy at this age

It is important to know that the provision of IVF treatment also varies throughout the country, and often depends on local CCG policies, which may require you to meet additional criteria. For example, in some areas of England, women over the age of 34 are being automatically refused IVF treatment on the NHS. You can ask your GP or contact your local CCG to find out what the criteria for NHS-funded IVF treatment are in your area.

If you don’t meet these criteria, you may need to pay for private treatment at a clinic. Some clinics can be contacted directly without seeing your GP first, but others may ask for a referral from your GP. The cost of private treatment can vary, but generally speaking, one cycle of IVF can cost up to £5,000 or more, and there may be additional costs for medicines, consultations, and tests. Make sure you find out exactly what’s included in the price during your discussions with the clinic.

Some people consider having IVF abroad, but there are a number of issues you need to think about, including your safety and the standard of care you will receive. It is important to be aware than clinics in other countries may not be as regulated as they are in the UK.

You can read about private fertility treatment and the issues and risks associated with fertility treatment abroad on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) website. You can also search for HFEA-regulated fertility clinics in the UK.

Abortion in the UK

Abortion is legal under most circumstances in England, Wales, and Scotland, based on the Abortion Act 1967. However, Northern Ireland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union, and it is illegal, except in very limited circumstances such as preserving a woman’s life or preventing permanent or long-term injury to her physical or mental health.

Getting an abortion in the UK

Most abortions in England, Wales, and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy. They can be carried out after 24 weeks in certain circumstances – for example, if the mother’s life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.

Abortions can only be carried out in an NHS hospital or a licensed clinic, and are usually available free of charge on the NHS.

There are three main ways to get an abortion on the NHS:

Abortions can also be paid for privately if you prefer. Costs for private abortions vary depending on the stage of pregnancy and the method used to carry out the procedure.

All women requesting an abortion in the UK should be offered the opportunity to discuss their options and choices with, and receive support from, a trained pregnancy counsellor, a GP, a counselling service at the abortion clinic, or organisations such as the FPABrook (for under-25s), BPASMarie Stopes UK and NUPAS. It is important to be aware of so-called “crisis pregnancy centres” that claim to provide impartial advice but often do not.

If you do not want to tell anyone about your unwanted pregnancy, your details will be kept confidential, and if you are under 16, your parents don’t usually need to be told. In the UK, information about an abortion does not go on your medical record.

Menopause in the UK

Women aged between 45 and 51, who experience symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping, can talk to their GP, who can usually confirm whether they are menopausal based on these signs. If you are under 45, your GP may also carry out a blood test to measure your hormone levels.

Treatments for menopausal symptoms are provided for free, under the NHS, and can include hormone replacement therapy (HRT), vaginal oestrogen creams and lubricants, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Your GP may also suggest lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly to maintain a healthy weight and stay fit and strong.

In some cases, your GP may refer you to a menopause specialist if your symptoms don’t improve after trying treatment or if you’re unable to take HRT. Find out more about treating the menopause.

Cancer screenings in the UK

In 2015, the most common form of cancer in women in the UK was breast cancer, accounting for almost a third (31%) of all female cases. The next most common cancers in UK females are lung cancer (12%) and bowel cancer (11%). Breast, lung, and bowel cancers together account for over half (54%) of all new cases in women.

How to get screened for cervical cancer 

Screening for cervical cancer is provided for free under the NHS. A cervical screening (or smear test) is not a test for cancer, but rather a test to help prevent cancer, and is conducted by taking a small sample of cells from the cervix and checking for abnormal changes. Finding abnormal changes early means they can be monitored or treated so they do not get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.

All women aged between 25 and 64 in the UK will be sent an invitation letter in the post asking them to have a cervical screening and telling them where they can go, and how to book it. The timing of this letter will depend on the age of the woman, for example, women aged between 25 and 49 will be asked to have a smear test every three years, while those aged between 50 and 64 will be invited only every five years. You can call your GP surgery to book an appointment with them, and in some cases, you might be able to book the appointment online.

Most cervical screening is done in a GP surgery by a female nurse or doctor, but in some parts of England, you may be able to go to a local sexual health clinic instead. You will get your results by letter, usually in about two weeks after the screening. This letter will explain what was tested for and what your results mean.

Most people will have a normal result, and are not required to have any further tests until the next screening is due again in three or five years. However, if the results are unclear, you will be asked to come back in three months to have the test again, but this does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong. Your GP will guide you through the entire process and advise you on the next steps.

How to get screened for breast cancer

Breast screening aims to find breast cancers early, and is offered every three years to all registered women aged between 50 and 71. You may be eligible for breast screening before the age of 50 if you have a very high risk of developing breast cancer, for example, if you have a family history of the disease. You can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening unit or GP.

The screening is carried out using an X-ray called a mammogram which can spot cancers when they are too small to see or feel. After your breasts have been X-rayed, the mammogram will be checked for any abnormalities, and the results will be sent to you and your GP no later than two weeks after your appointment. If the mammogram is unclear, you will be called back for further assessment.

If you are worried about breast cancer symptoms, such as a lump or area of thickened tissue in your breast, or you notice that your breasts look or feel different from what is normal for you, then you don’t have to wait to be offered a screening, and you can see your GP as soon as you can.

How to get screened for ovarian cancer

Currently, there is no national screening programme for ovarian cancer in the UK. This is because there isn’t a test that reliably picks up ovarian cancer at an early stage. There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been much success so far. The two tests used most often (in addition to a complete pelvic exam) to screen for ovarian cancer are a transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and a CA-125 blood test.

There are no recommended screening tests for ovarian cancer for women who do not have symptoms and are not at high risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, some organizations state that TVUS and CA-125 may be offered to screen women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to an inherited genetic syndrome such as Lynch syndrome, BRCA gene mutations, or a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Still, even in these women, it has not been proven that using these tests for screening lowers their chances of dying from ovarian cancer.

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