Comparing NHS with private cancer treatment

There might be some differences between the National Health Service (NHS) and private cancer treatment in the UK.

But usually treatments for cancer are the same whether you have it privately or on the NHS.

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

NHS treatment

In the National Health Service, a cancer specialist treats everyone with cancer. 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

The media sometimes reports about cancer drugs that are available in some parts of the UK but not others. This has 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 costly. Health authorities sometimes say that to provide expensive new treatments, they have to cut other health care areas.

Other new treatments might need specialist equipment and training. This all takes time to set up. 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 before the clinical trials have finished. You might read about a new treatment in the press and not understand why it's not available to you in the NHS.

The NHS will not provide these treatments. This is because the evidence on the new treatment isn't complete. NICE cannot review it and recommend it as a treatment until it has been through all the clinical trials.

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. It gives patients faster access to the most promising new treatments.

Paying for private treatment

Before you pay for private treatment not available on the NHS, find out the risks and benefits for you.

Sometimes the treatment could increase the chance of curing your cancer. Or it might help to control 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.

Discuss the treatment with your specialist. Then decide whether to have it. Remember that we need the results of all clinical trials first. Only then can we compare it to existing treatments to see if it works better.

Our clinical trials database have treatments that are still in clinical trials. You can print out the details of a trial you're interested in and take them to your specialist. They might be able to arrange for you to take part.

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