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NHS or private healthcare – which would you choose?

5th June 2015

With the NHS facing increased pressure from an aging population and public sector cuts, an increasing amount of media coverage has questioned the health service’s ability to satisfy demand. In response to the debate, The British Health Report 2015 has investigated how the general public and medical professionals feel about the capabilities of the NHS compared to private healthcare.

The survey asked 1,300 consumers and 400 medical professionals about their belief in the NHS versus their perception of private services. It also questioned whether individuals are more likely to seek private treatment for certain procedures.

The results suggest that, although some people would choose private healthcare in certain circumstances, the NHS is widely favoured for reliable and high quality care. This is particularly true for patients facing serious or life-threatening conditions.

In general, healthcare professionals believe that private services are no better than the NHS. However, these views differ depending on the professional’s role. For example, 62% of consultants, 59% of surgeons and 53% of specialist doctors believe private hospitals do not provide a better standard of care than those in the NHS. However, only 42% of GPs echo this view.  



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Cosmetic surgery

Of all the types of treatment available, cosmetic surgery is the most common reason why an individual would choose private hospitals over the NHS. More than half (52%) of those needing facial surgery, 56% seeking plastic surgery and 51% requiring laser eye surgery are more likely to choose private treatment.

Findings show that it’s more common for women to choose private treatment than men. More than two thirds (61%) of women prefer to have plastic surgery privately, while men are just as likely to seek the help of the NHS as they are to turn to private hospitals for cosmetic surgery.

Serious conditions and emergency care

Unlike the NHS, private hospitals are unable to offer around-the-clock emergency treatment due to a lack of facilities and resources. As a result, for serious conditions, life-threatening illnesses and emergency treatment, the NHS is the first place that individuals turn. Medical professionals agree with this sentiment, with 59% preferring the NHS for emergency care and 54% for critical care.

However, while 75% of women choose to have a baby in the hands of the NHS, only 32% of medical professionals support the NHS’ ability to compete with private hospitals in this discipline. The same disparity can be seen in cancer treatment, with 66% of the general public favouring the NHS over private healthcare compared to just 35% of professionals.

Reputation, price and proximity

The reputation of certain hospitals and their proximity to patients’ homes play a key part in the decision whether to seek the support of the NHS or a private hospital.

In fact, 40% of patients said they would select the NHS if it had a strong reputation for a particular treatment, while 28% said they would choose the NHS if they had had a good experience in the same hospital department.  

Furthermore, 28% say that they would choose the NHS over private if the hospital was closer and with better transport links.

Cost is a primary issue too, with 32% of respondents choosing the NHS in instances where they’re unable to pay for private treatment.*

Private isn’t perfect

Although private hospitals can offer better treatment in some areas, 58% of professionals say that they have had to treat patients who had previously received health care they thought to be inadequate. In most cases, these included orthopaedics (25%), general surgery (22%), emergency care (21%) and critical care (13%).

The British Health Report findings suggest that, although both the general public and medical professionals have concerns regarding the pressures placed on the NHS, for the most part, they still choose the NHS over private treatment. It’s clear that for emergency, intensive and acute care, the NHS cannot be beaten.

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*As respondents were able to select any number of reasons, these percentages do not add up to 100.