Everyone in the UK is entitled to free healthcare on the NHS, covering a wide variety of treatments and conditions. For various reasons, however, many people opt to have private surgery in one of the 230 independent private hospitals in the UK. These provide around 20% of non-urgent surgery in the UK and a third of all hip replacements, and the UK private healthcare market is worth around £15 billion.

This article on private surgery is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

So what are the benefits of private surgery, and is private surgery worth it? Here are a few things to think about but the final assessment is a personal thing – ultimately you need to decide whether it is a path you want to take.

The convenience

For many people, the biggest advantage of private surgery is the convenience. You are able to get the surgical treatment you need but when and where you want it. Compare this to the NHS, which proudly announced at the start of 2009 that it had reduced waiting times to just 18 weeks – that’s four and a half months. Add to this, there are an estimated 544,000 people waiting to be admitted to NHS hospitals and 890,000 people waiting for an outpatient appointment, according to the Department of Health’s own statistics. It’s easy to see the advantage of private surgery from the point of view of time.

With private surgery, you will be seen almost straight away and you will be able to fit your procedure into your personal schedule at a time that causes you the least inconvenience. For many patients, this aspect alone makes private surgery worth the money.

The peace of mind

Private hospitals are under less pressure for beds and have the budget to employ more staff. As a result, they often carry less risk from ‘hospital-acquired infections’ such as MRSA and C. diff (Clostridium difficile). Patients are also generally given individual rooms, which means less exposure to other patients and a lower risk of infection, as well as more privacy.

If you choose private surgery these is less chance that you will end up on a mixed ward, or sharing a bay with other people and their relatives at a vulnerable time. Private surgery also avoids the risk of your case becoming a teaching tool, with interested groups of junior doctors attending every ward round.

The increased choice

While many people go for private healthcare to avoid the NHS queue, private hospitals also offer many surgical procedures that are not covered by the NHS, such as plastic or cosmetic surgery. In these cases, private surgery is the only option.

Private surgery also gives you the choice of where you are treated and by whom. Although NHS Choices now gives patients some degree of choice, this is still no match for the complete control you can have with private healthcare.

Private surgery overseas

Private surgery overseas is a rapidly growing area of private medicine. This can significantly cut the cost, making private surgery even better value, while also giving you the chance to recover and recuperate in pleasant, ‘holiday’ surroundings.

Of course, the disadvantage of this is that should anything go wrong, you will not have the NHS to fall back on, and once home, you will be a long way away from your private surgery clinic.

The disadvantages

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of private surgery is the cost, with most procedures running into thousands of pounds, and even an initial consultation costing several hundred. Of course, if you are suffering, or if your problem is seriously encroaching on your lifestyle or ability to work, then private surgery costs may seem worth every penny.

One other major disadvantage is that most private surgery clinics do not have intensive care units attached to them, and rely on the local NHS hospital for support if anything goes wrong. This could lead to delays and traumatic transfers when you are most at risk, should complications arise.


For most people, funding private surgery directly is not an option, even if they have decided that private surgery is worth the cost. Only around 25% of private surgery is paid for directly, with most of the rest paid for through medical insurance.

There is a wide range of affordable medical insurance policies, with the cost varying depending on the level of cover you require, as well as factors such as age and previous medical history. While you may decide that having the option of private surgery is not worth putting aside thousands of pounds for, you may consider it worth paying a regular monthly payment.

Weighing up the options

Clearly there are many advantages to paying for private surgery and these must be weighed against the potential delays and inconvenience of waiting for free treatment on the NHS. There is no straightforward answer to whether private treatment is worth the cost, as it will naturally depend on your own personal and financial circumstances, and you should weigh up the issues discussed above in detail before you make your choice.

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