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What to do when ill – a guide to London’s health system6 min read

The healthcare system is divided in two main entities:

  • the public sector (through the NHS – National Health Service)
  • and the private sector

You can decide to just use the NHS (if you are entitled to) or you could use a mix of both.

Here we will explain both of them plus a third one – Alternative Medicine.


What is it?

The National Health Service (NHS) is the public health service that is made of family doctors, dentists, chemists, hospitals, opticians and community health services.

How does it work?

If you want to be seen by a doctor, you need to be registered with a GP (General Practitioner = family doctor) in the area you live in and then, should you have any health issue, you need to go through your GP who will check you up and will explain what the next step is. But bear in mind that you need to set an appointment first. GPs are very busy and it is quite unlikely that you will have your appointment on the same day.

However, should you need to quickly see a specialist (optician, dentist etc), you will have to select a NHS affiliated one and be examined by him without going through your GP.


How to register with a GP?

This is simple. You just need to check which GPs are in your area and select one based on the services offered and the reviews they have. This little tool will help you compare them based on: their facilities, services, access and their performance.

What happens if you’re not registered with a GP?

If you’re not registered with a GP and you become ill, a GP (in your area) might accept to see you but will give you a warning for next time.

Also, know that there are what we call walk-in medical clinics (privately held) or the NHS walk-in centres all across the UK or last resort (and for truly urgent situations!) you can go to the emergency department of a hospital (called Accident & Emergency – A&E for short) to be taken care of.

Sexual health clinics

As part of the NHS, there are also sexual health clinics in every borough. They can provide you with family planning, pregnancy advice, advice for teenagers and often they give free condoms. But you need to be registered in the borough. The contraceptive pill is also usually free. Use this tool to find a sexual health clinic near you.

Who can benefit from the NHS

The public health system is free for almost anyone in the UK. The following list indicates who can freely benefit from it:

  • foreigners entitled to live in the UK (whether for permanent residency or not)
  • anyone who has been living in the UK for at least a year at the time of the treatment
  • people from the European Union with a EHIC (the former name was E111)
  • NATO personnel based in the UK
  • students who will study for more than 6 months in the UK
  • refugees & people who can stay because of exceptional events in their country


NB: The public health service is a free service for – almost – All. But just like any service, there is room for improvement. It globally works fine even if there have been a rather important number of complaints in recent years. Some patients may experience some delays in their treatment. You have to understand that, sadly, the quality of service depends on where you live. Indeed, according to the area, the number of hospital beds and the length of the waiting list may vary.

However, if you would like a faster service and if you can afford to pay for it, you can decide to go to a private organization.

The private sector

How does it work?

In the case that you are not entitled to any treatment under the NHS, you will need to be taken care of by a doctor in a private hospital or clinic. If you decide to see a private GP or specialist, you (or your insurance company) will have to pay for the consultation.

NB: when appropriate, many people use the NHS doctors for a first examination and then a private doctor for a second opinion.

Who can benefit from it?

Anybody with sufficient funds can use the services offered by the private sector to get treated.

Walk-in medical clinics

In the last few years, a new type of private clinic has appeared, they are called walk-in or drop-in medicentres. In these clinics, the doctors and nurses can perform many tasks such as: health screening, vaccination and even minor treatment. These clinics change the way things usually work, e.g: there is no need for an appointment and no need to be registered anymore.


Once you’ve met the doctor who has diagnosed what you have and prescribed some medicines, you should find a chemist (= pharmacy). You can use this pharmacy locator tool to find one close to where you live.

Chemists are very easy to find in London but ask your doctor who will tell you know where you can find one. If you need to buy some medicines outside the usual hours, you can either go to:

  • Bliss, 5/6 Marble Arch, W1 (Tel: 020 7723 6116)
  • or Boots, 75 Queensway, Bayswater, W2 (Tel: 020 7229 9266)
  • or Zafash, 233/235 Old Brompton Road, SW5 (Tel: 020 7373 2798). Zafash is a 24h chemist!

Should all the chemists in your area be closed and should you urgently need medicines, you will need to try to contact your GP or NHS 111.

It is also worth remembering that you can get help towards the prescription costs.

NB: you should check if you belong to one of the groups of people who qualify for free prescriptions.

You qualify if:

  • you are under 16
  • you are 16-18 and in full-time education
  • you are 60 or over
  • you are pregnant or have had a baby in the past 12 months and have a valid maternity exemption certificate (MatEx)
  • you have a continuing physical disability that prevents you from going out without help from another person and have a valid MedEx
  • you have a specified medical condition and have a valid medical exemption certificate (MedEx)
  • you hold a valid war pension exemption certificate and the prescription is for your accepted disability
  • you are an NHS inpatient


Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

What is CAM?

Complimentary and Alternative Medicine is a name that regroups treatments that are not part of the mainstream healthcare.

Different practices fall under the CAM umbrella. For example : naturopathy, aromatheraphy, acupuncture, homeopathy, meditation etc.

How to find a practitioner?

London’s diversity is not only with its food and languages but also with the different practitioners. Not everybody is open to this idea but maybe Alternative Medicine could help you. If you would like to consider Alternative Medicine, you could contact the CNM (College of Naturopathic Medicine) in London or check their directory to find a suitable practitioner.


We are convinced you want to carry on having fun and enjoy life in London. There is one way to make sure this happens and that is to look after yourself. So you need to eat heathily, practice some sport, some relaxation etc.  But in case of a health problem you need to know what to do, where to go and who to contact. Make sure you keep this little guide handy, because although we hope you will never need it, you might still need it one day.

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