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A screenshot of Good Morning Britain news coverage, a woman speaking under the caption 'NHS waiting lists, Lindy was told 18 months on the NHS'

May 6th, 2024

‘Wait or pay’: Fears NHS waiting lists are creating ‘two-tier system’ as 17% of Brits seek private healthcare

By 38 Degrees team

Long NHS waiting lists are forcing thousands of Brits to pay privately for tests, treatment and surgeries amid fears of a ‘two-tier’ health service.

New polling carried out for us by Survation, has found 17% of people had paid privately for healthcare, for themself or a dependent, within the last year alone. 15% had accessed both NHS and private treatment, while just 2% had only used private healthcare.

As a million-strong campaign group calling on all parties to urgently offer real solutions to the NHS crisis ahead of the next General Election, we’re releasing these shocking figures ahead of the latest NHS waiting list figures being published on Thursday.

The most common reason for seeking private healthcare, given by 37% of people, was that NHS waiting lists were too long, followed by 23% who said the treatment they needed wasn’t available on the NHS.

Treatment accessed privately included elective inpatient care, such as surgeries (16% of patients); outpatient care such as tests (25%) and mental healthcare (19%). Primary healthcare was the most common type of healthcare among both NHS and private patients, but represented a much larger proportion of the NHS care received (76% of NHS patients compared to 41% of private patients).

The price paid by private patients varied: the most common price tag, for 36% of patients, was £500 or less, but 35% of patients forked out more than £1,000 for their care.

More than 1 in 5 (22%) of these patients are getting into debt to fund their care: while 39% found the cash from their savings, 13% had to borrow money from family or friends, and 9% took out a loan.

To accompany the research, members of the public who have felt forced to seek private treatment have shared their own stories with 38 Degrees. These ranged from patients who had paid hundreds of pounds to avoid long waits for diagnosis before going on to be treated by the NHS, to those forced to find tens of thousands of pounds for private operations, rather than wait as long as 18 months for NHS surgery.

The poll further shows the political impact of the NHS waiting lists crisis. With ‘Health and the NHS’ coming second only to the cost of living crisis as the most important issue in determining vote choice at the next election, most (52%) of voters say it is “not acceptable” for people to be forced to pay for private healthcare due to waiting lists, while 67% of people would blame the Government if patients were getting into debt to fund private healthcare.

Matthew McGregor, CEO at 38 Degrees, said: “It’s disgraceful: in a country with a National Health Service, patients are facing the choice between paying through the nose for private care or languishing, in pain and fear, on waiting lists.

“Talking to patients across the country, we’ve heard heartbreaking stories of people blowing their retirement fund on operations; forking out hundreds of pounds for diagnoses that mean they can finally start treatment; or borrowing money to fund care they can’t wait for. This national research backs up what we’ve been hearing from thousands of patients, that our health service is at risk of becoming a two-tier system, where it’s a question of wait or pay. 

“The polling shows most people who turn to private healthcare aren’t doing so because they don’t want to use the NHS. In fact, most of them are NHS patients, people who’ve paid in throughout their lives and were promised cradle-to-grave care, but find the service is no longer there for them when they need it.

“In an election year, with the NHS consistently polling as a top priority, the message today from voters is clear: our NHS is in crisis and it is unacceptable that patients are being forced to fund private care as a result. The upcoming election is a chance for change and an opportunity for all parties to set out their urgent plan to save our NHS.  Parties who fail to do so risk suffering at the ballot box.”

Retired teacher Lindy Kirk, 56, from Peterborough, was forced to spend £15,000 of her retirement savings on a private hip operation when, after she’d already endured more than 11 months waiting for an initial appointment with a surgeon, she was told the wait on the “expedited” list would be 18 months. Her wait for private surgery was just three months. 

She said: “During the time I waited I went from being able to run and take part in exercise classes to, a week before my surgery, being in a wheelchair. I was on so much codeine just to get through life that I couldn’t remember words in front of a class and had to be signed off from work. 

“I was becoming depressed, I put on weight because I couldn’t exercise, which made recovery harder – if I’d had to wait another 15 months being unable to do anything, I might have been too heavy to even have the surgery. 

“I’m now at the stage where my other hip is starting to show symptoms and that worries me: if I have to go private again that will wipe out almost all of the lump sum I’ve spent 30 years of teaching saving up.”

Retired GP Caroline Spencer-Palmer, 69, from Colne in Lancashire, worked in the NHS for over 30 years, and never expected to seek private healthcare. But after suffering shortness of breath and extreme tiredness in the aftermath of being hospitalised with an aortic aneurism, she was told to expect a 12 month wait to see a cardiologist for tests – despite her case being described as “urgent”.

She said: “Reluctantly, I went private. I was seen within two weeks and had the investigations I needed within eight weeks, and was able to start treatment that’s improved the quality of my life substantially.

“If you go private, you can skip the queue for investigations and start getting the treatment you need. It cost me just over £600, I was lucky that I had that amount in my bank account but I know that some people couldn’t afford that, in my position, they would still be waiting.”

38 Degrees is campaigning to keep the NHS free for all, with no charges for healthcare – see our latest petition and signature numbers at: https://act.38degrees.org.uk/act/stop-nhs-privatisation-petition 

See ‘stories from the queue’ – real experiences from some of the more than 6 million people waiting for NHS treatment, at: https://wecantwait.uk/ 



Sample size: 2,018 residents in the UK aged 18; Fieldwork dates: 26th – 29th April 2024; Data were weighted to the profile of individuals aged 18+ in UK. Data were weighted by age, sex, region, ethnicity, education level, and annual household income. The survey was conducted via online interview.

Click here to download the full tables.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Hannah Graham, hannah.g@38degrees.org.uk, 07704 547398

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