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An American's Experience with the NHS

After three years of using the NHS, I have had plenty of experience with their services as an international student. While the NHS is not perfect, my experiences with it have been generally positive. With that being said, I am lucky to have no pre-existing conditions or significant health risks, so others’ experiences may differ from mine depending on their medical history.  However, I thought it would still be helpful to share my experiences and tips for anyone who is new to using the NHS.  So without further ado, here are the pros and cons I’ve compiled in my experience dealing with the NHS.

The Pros:

As an American, the idea of a nationalized health service is pretty foreign to me. On my first visit to the local GP, I stayed by the front office after the appointment waiting to give my information or a co-pay, but instead, they confusingly smiled and sent bumbling first-year me on my way. Once you have an appointment booked, the process of seeing a doctor is pretty easy. I have always been checked in quickly, I haven’t waited longer than ten or so minutes before being seen, and the appointments themselves have always been informative, if quick. Even if I had to schedule a follow-up or wasn’t able to get all the answers I needed in one session, the staff have been able to reschedule me for not too long in the future. Additionally, what I was most shocked by as an American was that in Scotland, prescriptions are free. In my experience when I needed to switch over a US to a UK prescription or to get a new prescription altogether, I would have a consultation visit and would be prescribed around three months or so of medication, and would have another follow-up in three months’ time.  After that, I was prescribed one year’s worth of medication, completely free. I was baffled the first time this happened and had to double-check with the staff at Boots to make sure I wasn’t forgetting to pay for anything. In short, all of my in-person experiences at the medical offices have been pleasant - everyone is friendly and willing to help when needed.  

The Cons:

As I mentioned before, the NHS is not a miracle service. For anyone staying in the UK with a Tier 4 Student Visa, the NHS surcharge is £470 per year.  While you can call to make an appointment without any additional fees, their wait time for an appointment can be quite long. Sometimes they won’t have any openings for weeks, which could be concerning especially if it is a more pressing health issue. One way I have found to be successful is to wake up early and call right when the offices open (around 8 am) and try to get the first appointments of the day. Another aspect of note is mental health. While the NHS has definitely been improving when it comes to mental health, they have a long way to go. The wait time for mental health professionals, such as psychologists or physicists, can be long and difficult to get the help needed. I was lucky to be already seeing a therapist at home who I have online sessions with, but when it came to getting prescribed medication, I had to push to be given a prescription. In my experience, the NHS will promote online websites or self-help resources, which may not be the specific help you need. While Student Services also have their fair number of problems (read a review of Student Services here), they may be a helpful resource in advocating for mental health services from the NHS.

In my experience, my usage of NHS services have been positive overall. They have been helpful, easy to use, and generally caring - a significant advantage (especially when I am far from home). While there have been several obstacles I have run into, there are ways to manage them, and many of your fellow students may also help provide guidance. Overall, I am thankful for my access to the NHS services and, while my experiences may differ from others, I have been lucky to have generally positive encounters thus far.