Boots WebMD Partners in Health
Return To Boots

Navigating the NHS

What the NHS does

The NHS is the world’s largest publicly funded health service. The founding principle in 1948 was 'free at the point of delivery'. That's still true today in most cases. You don't get charged for visiting an NHS GP, but many people do pay to see a dentist or optician, unless you are exempt.

The NHS is there for all 63.2 million of us in the UK - from flu jabs to IVF treatment and heart transplants to cancer treatment.

NHS structure

The first contact with the NHS for most people will be through GPs - also known as primary care - usually based in your community. GPs and other staff at a practice can prescribe medicines, give vaccinations and refer people for specialist treatment. They'll also work with specialist NHS teams like midwives and health visitors. GPs surgeries provide out of hours care too.

Medicines prescribed by GPs are dispensed by pharmacists, and each prescription carries a charge in England, unless you are exempt from paying, for example children, students aged 16-18 in full-time education, over 60s, people on certain benefits and people with certain medical conditions. If you are given medication in hospital as an in-patient, you will not be charged.

The next level of the NHS is secondary care - things like hospitals, accident and emergency departments and mental health units. Other parts of the NHS run ambulance services and paramedics.

There are also specialist central bodies and regulators, such as the MHRA, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. It is responsible for licensing medicines and medical devices, making sure they are safe to use. Another is the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE sets standards and advises the NHS in England and Wales on which medicines and treatments it should pay for. The Scottish Medicines Consortium carries out that role in Scotland.

Multi billion pound budget

The NHS budget is funded for from taxes. This pays for:

  • Staff
  • Medication and medical supplies
  • Buildings, equipment and training
  • Medical equipment, catering and cleaning

Not one NHS

Although we talk about the NHS as one big organisation, it is run separately in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - with England employing the most staff.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on June 19, 2015

Stay informed

Sign up for BootsWebMD's free newsletters.
Sign Up Now!

Popular slideshows & tools on BootsWebMD

rash on skin
Soothe skin and prevent flare-ups
woman blowing nose
Myths & facts about allergies
cold sore
How to cope with cold sores
bowl of soup
Small changes that lead to weight loss
man administering eyedrops
Taking on eye allergies
palm tree and beach
How to make it less stressful
woman exercising
Exercises for low back pain
bain illustration
Best foods for your brain
bucket with cleaning supplies in it
Cleaning for a healthy home
mother and child
Could your baby be allergic to milk?
pregnant woman eating healthy salad
Nutrition needs before pregnancy