Understanding the British medical system can seem like an insurmountable task. I’ve lived in England for most of my 21 years, and I still struggle to get my head around it. For international students used to more straightforward healthcare services at home, it can be even more daunting: my mum arrived in London from Australia when she herself was 21, and ended up paying for expensive private appointments for the first couple of years, simply because nobody had explained the concept of the National Health Service (NHS) to her!
Of course, private healthcare has its benefits – and we will look at those in future articles, as well as many other medical topics. But even still, every international student arriving in this country on a course of 6 months or more is entitled to free treatment via the NHS, and should know how to access it. Here are 3 steps to get you started: don’t wait until you get ill, get cracking now!
PAYING YOUR INTERNATIONAL HEALTH SURCHARGE FEE
When people describe the NHS as being “free”, what they really mean is that it is “free at the point of service” – i.e. you don’t pay for individual appointments or treatments, and are entitled to as many of those as you need. Of course (as you economics students out there will know), the funding for that has to come from somewhere. Because the NHS is a public service, it is largely financed by taxing British citizens, who are then able to access healthcare without paying anything extra.
In the past, this worked out awesomely for international students in the UK, who could get this free treatment without being impacted by the taxes. However, with the NHS struggling in recent years, there’s been more pressure to balance the books, and make sure that everyone who is accessing public care is contributing towards it. Starting from 6th April 2015, this means that non-European students in the UK will have to pay a £150 annual medical surcharge on any new visa they receive, which can be transferred as part of the online visa application process. (Don’t worry if you applied for your latest visa before that date, you’ll be exempt – at least until your next application!) £150 might seem steep, but actually is a small price to pay to cover yourself for the year, and not worry too much about those nagging coughs and colds.
REGISTERING WITH YOUR LOCAL GP
Once you’ve paid the medical surcharge on your visa (or not, if you applied before 6th April!), you’re ready to register yourself with your local GP (general practitioner). GPs are the gateway to treatment in the UK: you generally wouldn’t drop into a hospital unless you have had an accident, and it’s almost impossible to get access to a specialist without first getting a referral from your local doctor.
Most universities will have a nearby health centre that they recommend, or alternatively you can check in the NHS directory. To register, you simply need to turn up during working hours, ask to be set up with the NHS, and fill out some forms (make sure you bring your passport, student card and proof of address, as well as any other important documents). Before you know it, you should have your own shiny NHS card arriving through the post.
GETTING AN APPOINTMENT
This is the final step, and by far the easiest. You simply need to call your GP (or rather, their office) during working hours to make an appointment. Depending on how busy your local centre is, it could take anything from a day to a couple of weeks to find a time that works – although I always find that those 8am slots are best for quick treatment!