Private vs NHS Cancer Treatment

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As things get more and more desperate in the cancer world the advertising for private treatment and test etc is being ramped up. Naturally, rather than sitting on a never ending waiting list, many people are tempted to take the private route, if they have the funds. In my opinion this is ok for many of the more basic procedures and tests. However cancer is a lot more complex than that, and can throw up situations that nobody could foresee.

Back in 2007 when I was first diagnosed, I did have private healthcare cover, but chose to stay on the NHS path. Of course, things were very different then in cancer, than they are today. With all the complex treatment I have received I know for a fact that I have cost millions so far. Most of that would not have been covered, especially for in excess of 16 years, with ongoing complications. Please have a check through some of the positives and negatives before you make your decision.

Cancer Treatment in the UK: Navigating Your Options

A cancer diagnosis leaves you facing many difficult decisions. One of the first is whether to pursue treatment through the NHS or private healthcare. It’s a complex choice with pros and cons to weigh carefully. This in-depth blog examines the key factors to consider when deciding between private and NHS cancer care.

Wait Times

One major advantage of private treatment is more rapid access to tests and specialists. After an urgent GP referral, NHS guidelines say you should start treatment within 62 days. However, waits can extend beyond this target during busy periods, averaging around 80 days. Delays happen due to limited equipment, staff shortages, high demand, and other constraints. With private care, you’ll likely begin the diagnostic process within days or weeks, then swiftly proceed to treatment. This faster timeline provides comfort and can be critical for cancers that are aggressive or fast-spreading.

On the other hand, NHS wait times for common cancer types may be reasonable if you have an early stage, non-urgent case. Waits also depend on your location – certain NHS trusts consistently hit targets, while others lag behind. Weigh your personal risk factors and cancer subtype when deciding if NHS wait times could impact outcomes. Know your rights to initiate private care if the NHS cannot start treatment within 62 days.

Access to New Drugs and Innovative Treatments

Cyberknife machine

Private facilities often provide the latest cancer treatments months before they are available on the NHS. This early access includes emerging immunotherapy drugs, targeted therapies, robotic surgery techniques, advanced cyberknife radiation, and more. By the time NHS funding and approval happens, a new drug or technology could be up to a year old. This NHS delay is due to cost analysis requirements and slower policy change

While cutting edge treatments can extend and improve life for cancer patients, risks and benefits are still being established. The innovative nature means long term effects are unknown. NHS doctors follow strict protocols to provide treatments proven highly effective, although considered “standard” versus “revolutionary”. Discuss all pros and cons of new versus established approaches with specialists to make the best decision for your diagnosis.

Choice of Specialists and Hospitals

With private insurance or self-pay, you can pick any qualified specialist in the UK. This allows shopping around to find experts best suited to treat your cancer type and stage. Check credentials, read reviews, understand success rates. You may even choose facilities like Harley Street clinics or prestigious hospitals like The London Oncology Clinic. This flexibility and control over physicians can provide added confidence in your care team.

On the NHS, your specialist is assigned based on location and availability. However, UK oncologists undergo rigorous training and demonstrate extensive knowledge. NHS hospitals also employ strict credentialing and performance standards. While your doctors may not be household names, they have the skills and experience needed to deliver high quality treatment. Seek multiple opinions and factor doctor rapport into your NHS/private decision.

Hotel-Like Amenities and Facilities

Private UK clinics aim to make patients comfortable by providing premium facilities more akin to hotels than hospitals. Expect freshly renovated private rooms, better food options, lounges with coffee bars and snacks, etc. The pleasant aesthetics and surroundings can enhance healing and quality of life during treatment. Additionally, private hospitals invest heavily in the latest cancer screening, imaging, and treatment technology to improve precision.

Private hospital room

However, don’t discount NHS capabilities. Critical equipment like PET and CT scanners meet rigorous standards at NHS cancer hubs. What NHS facilities may lack in luxury, they make up for in expertise and capacity to handle complex cases. Still, outdated or overloaded equipment can lead to frustrating delays at times. If your local trust has known equipment shortages, going private may provide better access.

Integrated Support Services

Another private care advantage is access to comprehensive support services all under one roof. This includes counselling, nutrition advice, physical therapy, pain management, wig fittings, support groups and more. Having coordinated specialists makes this holistic care more convenient. NHS providers have been slow to take this integrated approach, but select trusts now offer more robust services for counselling, rehab, and lifestyle needs. Check what’s available through both your local NHS trust and private options.

Costs and Medical Insurance

The most prohibitive downside of private cancer care is cost, with no price regulation. You pay out-of-pocket for all expenses unless you have extensive health insurance. Without insurance, private cancer treatment can soar above £20,000 for testing, surgery, drugs, hospital fees and more. Even low-grade, early cancers often exceed £15,000 privately. Compare this to NHS care which is free at point of use for UK residents.

Many Brits take out medical insurance, but most policies have limits or exclusions for serious illnesses like cancer. Pre-existing conditions may also disqualify you from full coverage. Expect costs for drugs, alternative treatments, travel or clinical trial entry to fall outside policy limits. Read fine print carefully and get cost estimates beforehand.

Weighing Up Your Options

In summary, private cancer care offers faster access, more control over specialists, access to emerging treatments, premium facilities and amenities, and integrated support services. But quality NHS treatment has its own strengths like rigorous standards, highly qualified teams, and avoiding financial strain.

Think critically about your unique diagnosis, risk level, finances and personal priorities. Get multiple opinions on optimal treatment plans. Discuss options frankly with both private and NHS oncologists. This allows making the most informed decision possible on whether private or NHS cancer care better suits your medical and lifestyle needs.

As always these are my own opinions based on personal experiences. Please feel free to share your own below.

2 Comments

  1. You say in the article:
    ‘Know your rights to initiate private care if the NHS cannot start treatment within 62 days’.
    Please could you provide more details about initiating private healthcare after 62 days.
    Thanks.

  2. Hi Simon,
    This is what I said in the piece. “After an urgent GP referral, NHS guidelines say you should start treatment within 62 days. However, waits can extend beyond this target during busy periods, averaging around 80 days.” Private care in cancer is a matter of personal choice and finances.

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