How to afford private healthcare if you want to skip the NHS queues

Private hospitals are seeing a huge increase in enquiries as the NHS concentrates on treating Covid patients. If you are thinking of going private, says Ruth Jackson, here's how to keep the costs down.

Doctor doing doctor things
Private healthcare isn't cheap. A 0% purchase credit card could reduce your expenses
(Image credit: © Getty Images)

As the NHS has focused its efforts on fighting Covid-19, waiting lists for everything from hip replacements to cancer treatments have lengthened considerably. As a result, many people are choosing to avoid the queues and opt for private treatment instead.

“As leading doctors warn mass cancellations of NHS operations in England are inevitable this winter after waiting times reached the highest levels on record this summer, data shows a rise in the number of people self-funding treatment or investing in private health insurance,” says Jessica Murray in The Guardian.

Compare the Market has reported a 40% increase in year-on-year private health-insurance sales from April to October this year. At the same time, private hospitals are seeing a huge increase in enquiries.

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“We are starting to see a substantial increase in our self-pay patients compared with what we saw last year,” Andrew Coombs, commercial director at HCA Healthcare, told The Daily Telegraph.

So, what can you expect to pay for private treatment? “Operations do not come cheap,” says David Byers in The Times. Private hospital chain Spire reports “that cataract surgery starts at £2,040 while a knee replacement costs upwards of £9,990. Patients also have to pay for an initial consultation, which typically costs £200.”

The Daily Mail reports that waiting lists for a hip replacement are getting close to 12 months. Opt to go private and you’ll face an average bill of £12,867, according to Byers.

If you plan to pay upfront for your treatment, then think carefully about where you get the money from. While savings are the obvious choice, many over-55s have been dipping into their pensions since the pandemic began.

If you take more than the 25% tax-free lump sum, then you will trigger the Money Purchase Annual Allowance, which means the amount you can contribute and claim tax relief on will fall from £40,000 a year to just £4,000. So be very careful about how much you take if you decide to raid your pension savings.

You needn’t pay for your treatment in one go. There are a several ways you can spread the cost. Some private hospitals have payment plans, but you are likely to be charged an interest rate that is far from competitive: Spire offers a variety of payment plans, the longest being 60 months at an annual percentage rate (APR) of 9.9%.If you want to spread the cost over a shorter period, you could consider taking out a 0% purchase credit card. The longest deals at present are interest-free for 18 months from M&S Bank, and 20 months from Sainsbury’s Bank and TSB.

You can’t guarantee you’ll get a credit limit large enough to cover the entire cost of your treatment, but even putting part of the cost on an interest-free card will cut the overall amount of interest you pay. It is also worth looking at a personal loan rather than a payment plan; you can borrow up to £20,000 from Cahoot and up to £25,000 from TSB over one to five years at 2.8% APR.

Anyone considering private treatment should get on with it. “As waiting lists grow, so do the number of patients choosing to pay for treatments,” says Byers.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings accounts and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance.

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping, among many other titles both online and offline.