Decorative image

Comparing NHS with private cancer treatment

Find out about the differences between the National Health Service (NHS) and private cancer treatment in the UK.

Treatments for cancer are usually the same, whether you are treated privately or on the NHS.

You might be able to get some tests or treatments done more quickly privately. But some cancer treatments such as radiotherapy need a lot of expensive, specialised equipment, which might not be available in private hospitals.

NHS treatment

In the National Health Service, everyone with cancer is treated by a cancer specialist. Your specialist will recommend the best treatment for your condition. They will also tell you if there are treatments which could help you that aren’t available on the NHS.

Availability of new treatments

You might have read stories in the papers about cancer drugs being available in some parts of the UK but not others. This has sometimes been called the postcode lottery. 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was set up to overcome this in England and Wales. The Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) was set up in Scotland. Northern Ireland usually follows NICE decisions. 

The role of NICE and the SMC is to look at new treatments and:

  • see if they work
  • see if they are cost effective
  • judge whether they should be freely available on the NHS

NICE and the SMC review all types of treatments, not just new drugs. If they approve a new treatment, health authorities have to provide it.

Many new treatments are extremely expensive. Health authorities sometimes say that other areas of health care will have to be cut if they need to provide expensive new treatments.

Other new treatments might need specialist equipment and training. This all takes time to set up and your local cancer centre might not have all this in place by the time you need it.

New unproven treatments

New treatments might be available privately even if they haven't been fully tested in clinical trials. If you read about a new treatment in the press, it might be hard to understand why it's not available to you.

The NHS will not provide these treatments because the evidence that the new treatment is better than the available standard treatment isn't complete. NICE cannot review it and recommend it to be used until the clinical trials are finished. 

You might be able to get the treatment privately. But you will have to pay for this. Some cancer treatments can cost many thousands of pounds. 

The Cancer Drugs Fund

The Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) is a source of funding for cancer drugs in England, which gives patients faster access to the most promising new treatments. 

Paying for private treatment

Before you agree to pay for private treatment that's not available on the NHS, it's important that you find out the possible risks and benefits of the treatment in your case.

Sometimes the treatment could increase the chance of curing your cancer or controlling it for a long time. In this case, you might feel that it’s worth the cost.

But in some cases, the treatment might only give a small chance of controlling the cancer for a short time. You may feel that it isn't worth the cost to you. 

It’s very important to discuss the treatment fully with your specialist before deciding whether to have it. Do remember that until all clinical trials have been done, no one can be sure that a new treatment works better than the existing treatments for that cancer type.

Look at our clinical trials database if you want to try a treatment that is still in clinical trials. You can print out the details of a trial you’re interested in and take them to your own specialist. They might be able to arrange for you to take part.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.