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NHS waiting list: Patients turning to private healthcare in the UK

Delays and cancellations are forcing many NHS patients to make life-changing decisions for the medical treatment they need. Some have dipped into life savings, while others are turning to various types of loans to afford treatment in a private hospital. With the NHS waiting list growing by the day, patients who can no longer wait are likely to face severe debt and a long road to recovery.

As the waiting list grows, what should you do to avoid waiting for weeks, if not months, for healthcare treatment? Find out in this Pacific Prime UK article as we explore some of the factors contributing to the growing NHS waiting list, the costs of operations people end up paying for privately and introduce you to a few benefits of securing health insurance in the UK.

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Primary factors contributing to the long NHS waitlist

Several factors have contributed to the long waiting lists in the UK, including bed shortages, lack of social care, emergency cases taking priority, lack of funds and resources and the COVID-19 pandemic.

A shortage of beds

In 2018, the King’s Fund analysis compared health services across the 21 OECD countries and discovered that the UK had some of the worst hospital beds figures. To add to this finding, the UK has fewer hospital beds for seriously ill patients (acute) relative to the population than leading European economies such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, according to a BBC article.

Further reading: An overview of the United Kingdom healthcare system

Winter pressure

Bed shortages are common in public hospitals across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland during the winter season. As a reference, winter waiting times in 2019/20 increased compared to 2018 due to a lack of available hospital beds. In the winter of 2019, there was a significant increase in patients waiting for over 4 hours (98,452) and over 12 hours (2,347) between decisions to admit and actual admission to general wards. This is substantial compared to 59,805 and 284, respectively, in December 2018.

Lack of social care

Another contributing factor to NHS waiting lists is the lack of social care in the community. This means beds remain occupied and medically fit patients cannot be discharged until it is safe to do so. According to Age UK, the cost to the NHS to reform and refinance social care between 8th June 2017 and 12th December 2019 was GBP £587 million overall, equivalent to GBP £640,000 every day, or GBP £27,000 every hour. So far, around 2.5 million bed days have been lost due to the lack of social care.

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Emergency cases take priority

When patients require emergency treatment, they typically get taken through Accident and Emergency (A&E), where a team of specialists, doctors and nurses quickly establish a plan for some form of emergency treatment or operation. These patients are typically those who have suffered trauma such as a stabbing, car accident, heart attack, poisoning, etc.

During emergencies, medical professionals will assess the acuity of their patients and, in most cases, prioritise emergency cases over elective ones. If this occurs, the patient awaiting an elective procedure will likely be told that their operation is cancelled.

Limited funds and resources

“The NHS is extremely backlogged now and waiting periods are at their highest level in decades.” – Liz Russell, General Manager at Pacific Prime UK

Having been underfunded for decades, it’s no surprise that the NHS has been hit hard with severe backlogs. Consequently, this has led to an increase in demand for private health and life insurance policies.

Further reading: Pacific Prime’s State of Health Insurance 2020-2021 Report looks at the main healthcare trends across the globe, including the UK. View the report to learn more!

The UK government plans to boost funds for Q4 2021

Sourcing the funds and allocating them is the UK government’s responsibility. Recently, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, announced an additional GBP £5.4 billion for the NHS for the remainder of this current financial year to address backlog costs and COVID-19. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the extra injection of funds will be. But hopefully, they may help shorten the waiting list and allow patients to get treated sooner.

Tax increase to finance the NHS in 2022

Furthermore, the government is planning to help finance the NHS through increases in taxes. From April 2022, there will be a 1.25% increase in employers’ and employees’ national insurance contributions. There will also be a 1.25% increase in share dividend tax. Together they will help provide an extra GBP £12 billion in taxes raised each financial year; or GBP £36 billion over the three remaining financial years of the current parliament.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed NHS services and treatment

Although the NHS delivered a remarkable amount of elective treatment in England alone, it was less than the number targeted. The sheer pressure of treating multiple cases of seriously unwell COVID-19 patients led to the waiting list for elective care reaching the highest level since current records began.

Most elective procedures halted across England

The first and second COVID-19 waves put health services across England under tremendous strain. As a result, elective procedures were cancelled as medical personnel were retrained and dispatched to COVID-19 and respiratory wards/departments.

Further reading:

  • Pacific Prime’s Cost of Health Insurance 2020 Report looks at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer health behaviour and the decision for healthcare providers to push back elective surgeries. View the report to learn more.

The costs of seeking private healthcare

Based on research by Versus Arthritis, over half of the people (54%) with arthritis in the UK are currently waiting for surgery and spend on average more than GBP £1,700 a year on private healthcare (consultations and procedures) and physiotherapy, as well as over-the-counter painkillers. Those keen on getting NHS treatment may have to wait for months, if not years, because of delays to treatment. They will likely see ongoing costs rise due to medical inflation. The physical pain of waiting for surgery could also negatively impact their long-term health and mental well-being.

Treating arthritis at a private hospital

Patients with arthritis usually undergo elective total knee replacement (TKR) surgery, which involves cutting away arthritic bone and inserting a prosthetic joint. According to sources by Private Healthcare UK, the cost of a TKR stands at around GBP £11,814. At the same time, a total hip replacement (TKR) starts at around GBP £10,000 to £11,000 per hip. See the BBC’s article on NHS waits: More people feeling forced into private healthcare for more costs, including diagnostics and procedures.

Secure health insurance to cover expensive private healthcare costs

Health insurance can help cover the cost of private healthcare costs. Ideally, it’s best to secure health insurance early when you don’t have any underlying health issues.

Note: As long as your health conditions are not considered pre-existing and you meet the terms and conditions of a specific policy, health insurers will likely cover treatment at the private hospital.

Benefits of health insurance in the UK

Here are a few benefits of having health insurance in the UK:

1. Avoid NHS waiting lists and treat your health problem faster

This benefit is great in case you need treatment right away.

2. Enjoy a private room while you are in hospital as an inpatient

Health insurance offers many benefits and one of the basic options is inpatient care and treatment. This includes access to your own private room/space to recover.

3. Be able to decide who treats you, especially if you have a specific doctor or medical team in mind

Choose where and when to get treated for your health problem.

4. Access special treatments and/or drugs that are not available on the NHS

In the UK, not all treatments and medicines are available on the NHS. This is usually because they’re either too expensive to procure or have not yet been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). However, the private healthcare system will often have access to specific drugs and treatments. Just bear in mind that availability depends on the type of private hospital, group or medical specialism you choose.

Further reading:

Get in touch with Pacific Prime UK

If you’d like to learn about health insurance and discover more exciting benefits, our advisors can help you today! With so many types of plans, options and conditions to fully understand, our advisors can compare private health insurance plans in the UK and simplify the details.

Contact us today for obligation-free advice!

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime UK
Jimmy is a content writer who helps simplify insurance for readers interested in international private medical insurance. He is on a mission in the UK to support locals, expatriates, and businesses by bring the latest news and updates to his Pacific Prime blog articles.

His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for the UK, China, Dubai, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore.