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How the NHS works

doctor explains to patient

The National Health Service (NHS) is the publicly funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom. It provides most healthcare including general practitioners, dentistry and hospital services (including HIV services).

What does the NHS do?

The NHS gives people access to general and specialist healthcare when they need it. No one has to pay for treatment when they need it, however, if you are not a UK resident you may have to pay for your treatment at a later point.

How the NHS is organised?

The NHS is organised separately in each of the four UK nations.

In England, the NHS is organised into primary and secondary care and managed by local authorites, Clinical Commissioning Groups and NHS England.

Primary care and secondary care – hospitals and GPs

Primary care is the first point of contact that you have with the NHS and includes:

  • General Practitioners (GPs) or family doctors
  • Practice and community nurses based either in GP surgeries or in the community
  • Dentists
  • Pharmacists
  • Opticians

If your GP cannot give you the care and help you need they will refer you on to a secondary care service.

Secondary care means more specialist care that you would mostly find in hospitals. This includes specialist HIV care. However, for HIV care you do not need a referral so you can go straight to an HIV or sexual health clinic without speaking to your GP first.

People with HIV access both primary and secondary care as the GP can often still be the best person to help.

Are NHS services free?

NHS services are free at the point of care so anyone can get the care and treatment they need.

All HIV treatment is free regardless of your immigration status.

If you are not a British resident you may have to pay some of the costs for non-HIV care but if your condition is life threatening or infectious you will always be treated.

In England, whilst your HIV medication is free of charge, there can be a charge for other prescriptions and for dental and eye care.

Where can I find out more?

NHS England

The NHS Constitution sets out your rights as a patient.

Health in Wales

NHS Scotland



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The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 16/7/2014 by R. Bignami

Date due for the next review: 16/7/2017

Content Author: Roger Pebody (NAM)

Current Owner: Greta Hughson (NAM)

More information:

NHS England

The NHS Constitution sets out your rights as a patient.

Health in Wales

NHS Scotland

Department of Health Guidance on overseas visitors hospital charging regulations updated October 2013