You are here:

The NHS in England

About the National Health Service (NHS)

Since its launch in 1948, the NHS has grown to become the world’s largest publicly funded health service. It is also one of the most efficient, egalitarian and comprehensive.

The NHS was born out of a long-held ideal that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth – a principle that remains at its core. With the exception of some charges, such as prescriptions and optical and dental services, the NHS remains free at the point of use for anyone who is a UK resident. That is currently more than 63.2 million people. It covers everything from antenatal screening and routine treatments for long-term conditions, to transplants, emergency treatment and end-of-life care.

Responsibility for healthcare in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government respectively.


The NHS employs more than 1.7 milion people. Of those, just under half are clinically qualified – including 39,780 general practitioners (GPs), 370,327 nurses, 18,687 ambulance staff, and 105,711 hospital and community health service (HCHS) medical and dental staff.

Only the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Wal-Mart supermarket chain and Indian Railways directly employ more people.

The NHS in England is the biggest part of the system by far, catering to a population of 53 million and employing more than 1.35 million people. The NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland employs 153,427 – 84,817 and 78,000 people respectively.

The NHS deals with over 1 million patients every 36 hours.


Funding for the NHS comes directly from taxation and is granted to the Department of Health by Parliament. When the NHS was launched in 1948, it had a budget of £437 million (roughly £9 billion at today’s value). For 2012/13, it was around £108.9 billion. 


The NHS in England is undergoing some big changes, most of which took effect on April 1 2013. This included the abolition of primary care trusts (PCTs) and strategic health authorities (SHAs), and the introduction of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and Healthwatch England.

However, none of this will have an effect on how you access front-line services, and your healthcare continues to remain free at the point of use. For detailed information about all these changes, read our page on the NHS' structure.


In the UK, life expectancy has been rising and infant mortality has been falling since the NHS was established. Both figures compare favourably with other nations. Surveys also show that patients are generally satisfied with the care they receive from the NHS. Importantly, people who have had recent direct experience of the NHS tend to report being more satisfied than people who have not.

In 2010, the Commonwealth Fund declared that in comparison with the healthcare systems of six other countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand and USA) the NHS was the second most impressive overall. The NHS was rated as the best system in terms of efficiency, effective care and cost-related problems. It was also ranked second for patient equality and safety.


Page last reviewed: 28/01/2013

Next review due: 28/01/2015

The NHS Constitution

The Constitution sets out the rights patients, the public and staff are entitled to, and pledges the NHS is committed to achieving

The NHS 1948 - 1959

Read about the humble beginnings of the NHS from its launch in July 1948 to its subsequent medical breakthroughs