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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.

Some conditions like diabetes may be managed by doctors and nurses at a hospital or in a GP practice.

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.

UK's biggest employer

More than 1.7 million people work for the NHS across the UK:

  • 370,327 nurses
  • 39,780 GPs
  • 18,687 ambulance staff

Multi billion pound budget

The NHS budget is more than £108 billion a year - around £2,000 for every man, woman and child in the UK - paid 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 July 22, 2013

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