What is the NHS?

1 June 2017

The NHS stands for the National Health Service.  It refers to the Government-funded medical and health care services that everyone living in the UK can use without being asked to pay the full cost of the service. These services include:

  • Visiting a doctor or a nurse at a doctor’s surgery
  • Getting help and treatment at a hospital if you are unwell or injured
  • Seeing a midwife if you are pregnant
  • Getting urgent help from healthcare professionals working in the ambulance services if you have serious or life-threatening injuries or health problems - this might include being transported to hospital

People often refer to these health services as ‘free at the point of use (or delivery)’. This means that any UK resident can, for example, go and see a doctor who will offer diagnosis or treatment for an illness without asking the individual to pay for this service during or after the visit. Instead, most health care services are ‘publicly funded’, which means money has been allocated by government to pay for this visit to the doctor. Most of the money is collected through UK residents paying tax.

There’s more than one NHS in the UK, as the responsibility of health care has been passed from the UK government to the Scottish Government, Welsh Government, and Northern Irish Assembly. NHS England, NHS Wales (GIG Cymru), and NHS Scotland provide health care services in Great Britain.

The publicly funded health care service in Northern Ireland isn’t officially called the NHS, it’s actually called Health and Social Care Services (HSC).

Each NHS organisation and the HSC provide health care services free at the point of delivery. But there are slight differences in what is fully funded by government and what services are available across the different UK countries. For example, NHS England asks some people to pay part of the cost of prescriptions (the drugs given to treat or cope with an illness or injury). Whereas, in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland these costs are budgeted for by the government.

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When and who set up the NHS?

The NHS was officially opened by Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan on 5 July 1948, at Park Hospital (now Trafford General Hospital) in Manchester. This unveiling marked the day that by law all UK residents were given the right to access health services offered by doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists without having to pay directly in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  

Why was the NHS set up?

The NHS was set up so that everybody shared the burden of paying for health services offered by doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists, rather than the costs coming directly from ill or injured people. The 1948 leaflet that was sent out to people when the NHS started said:

‘Everyone - rich or poor, man, woman or child - can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a “charity”. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness’

Before the NHS there were many different health systems in Britain. Low paid working people could rely on the National Health Insurance scheme (set up in 1911) to help pay medical costs. People in certain places were covered by council schemes, and some workers took out membership in special societies to help cover their costs. But many people still had to pay for some of their care themselves, and some people, especially women and people out of work, had to pay directly for any care they needed.

One reason for creating the NHS was to provide health services to everyone in the UK, and “nobody need any longer pay doctors’ or hospital bills when they were sick”, aiming to make medical care available whether you were rich or poor.


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