Private cancer treatment

You might decide to access all or part of your cancer care through private healthcare. This could be at a separate, private hospital. Or you might use a private service in a National Health Service hospital.

Free healthcare in Northern Ireland is called Health and Social Care (HSC). In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland this is called the National Health Service (NHS).  

There are many different reasons you might want to choose private care. For example:

  • you might be able to see a specialist faster
  • you may be able to choose your specialist or hospital
  • you want to access different types of treatment or a treatment that isn’t available through free healthcare
  • you want to ask for a second opinion

Paying for private care

You need to pay for any care or treatment you have privately. There are different ways you can do this:

  • private health insurance – you pay into a health insurance policy and your insurance company then pay for your care if this is covered in the policy
  • employer health insurance – your employer might pay for private health insurance for you
  • self funding – you pay for any treatment yourself

Private care can be expensive. If you self fund, your specialist has to tell you how much your treatment will cost from the beginning. It helps to know how much everything cost. But there may be other costs that the specialist can't predict. For example if you become unwell you might need other treatments to help with this.

Some private health insurance companies don’t pay for all types of treatment. Check with them before you book an appointment.

How do I arrange private cancer treatment?

There are different ways that you can get an appointment with a specialist privately. These are:

  • GP referral – you can ask your GP to refer you to a private specialist. You might have to pay for the referral
  • specialist referral – you can ask your cancer specialist to refer you to a private specialist or hospital 
  • self referral – you can contact a private clinic or hospital yourself, and book an appointment

If you have private health insurance, speak to them before you get a referral. They may have rules on what you need to do.

The private hospital will ask for information about:

  • your medical history
  • the reason you want the appointment
  • how you plan to pay 

Choosing a specialist

You might already know who you would like to see privately. Or you might even want to see the same specialist as you are seeing on the NHS or HSC. 

If you don’t know who is the best specialist for you, it can be difficult to choose. You can find details of private specialists and hospitals on several websites.

You can search the PHIN and goprivate directories for free. The general public must subscribe (pay) to access the specialistinfo directory.

All private hospitals in the UK are registered and inspected in the same way as NHS and HSC hospitals. Depending on where you live this is by:

  • the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in England
  • Healthcare Improvement Scotland in Scotland
  • Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) in Northern Ireland 
  • Healthcare Inspectorate Wales (HIW) in Wales

Moving between NHS and private healthcare

If you choose to have private care, you don’t lose your right to NHS treatment. So you can choose to move back to NHS care at any time. For example, you might choose to see a private specialist to have diagnostic tests but move back to the NHS for your treatment.

If you decide to move back to the NHS, you do not move to the front of the queue. Your referral will be dealt with in the same time as any others. For cancer, this is usually an urgent referral.

Getting a treatment that isn't available on the NHS

There are organisations that review new treatments and drugs. And they decide whether they should be available on the NHS. These include the: 

  • Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC)
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) 

NICE generally make recommendations for healthcare in England and Wales. Northern Ireland usually follows NICE decisions.

You might choose to have private treatment if:

  • organisations such as NICE or SMC has not recommended it for NHS use
  • it is a treatment that hasn’t completed testing in clinical trials, or is not tested for your cancer type

Talk to your specialist before you pay for a treatment. Ask them about the possible risks and benefits of having a treatment that might not be recommended or fully researched.  Ask what the alternatives are.

Not all health insurance will cover these medicines. Talk to your insurance provider to check before you start treatment.

You pay for the cost of the treatment, and any special investigations that you need while you have it. The NHS continues to pay for the rest of your care. You will probably have treatment at 2 different hospitals or departments. There is more information about this on the NHS website.

If you are having a medicine that isn’t available on the NHS, you will have to stop it if you switch back to NHS care.

Getting a second opinion

You can ask for a second opinion as part of the NHS. You don’t have to pay privately to see another specialist. But some people choose to go privately. For example, they might want to see another specialist quickly and not have to wait.  Or they may want to see a specialist that they have chosen. There are advantages and disadvantages of getting a second opinion. 

Complaining about private healthcare

If you aren’t happy with your care, the first and easiest way to sort things out is to speak to the people involved. If you feel comfortable, try speaking to your doctor or consultant. Or talk to a nurse or member of your healthcare team.

If you can't sort out problems by talking to your healthcare team, you might want to make a complaint.

Guidelines about making a complaint might be different for each private hospital. To complain about your treatment, ask the manager about their complaints procedure. You can also ask the healthcare insurance company for advice if they pay for your care.

Sometimes it might be that you are not satisfied with the hospital's response. In that case, you can contact the Independent Sector Complaints Adjudication Service (ISCAS). 

You can get advice from the Financial Service Ombudsman If you aren’t happy with the service from your health insurance company.

  • Responding to private healthcare
    British Medical Association
    Accessed August 2023

  • 10 things you should know about private healthcare in the UK
    Private Healthcare Information Network 
    Accessed August 2023

  • Private healthcare market investigation
    Competition and Markets Authority, 2014

  • A code of conduct for private practice: recommended standards of practice for NHS consultants
    Department of Health, 2004

  • Defining the boundaries between NHS and private healthcare
    West Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, 2020

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
05 Jan 2024
Next review due: 
05 Jan 2027

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