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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 everyone who lives in the UK - for everything 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 medication, 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.

Medication 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 (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 Welsh Government will sometimes take a different approach to funding than England. The Scottish Medicines Consortium carries out the NICE 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 May 03, 2017

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