You'll usually need a GP referral to access hospital treatment, except in an emergency.
Is hospital care free on the NHS?
Hospital treatment is free if you're ordinarily resident in the UK.
The services and treatments listed below are free to all in NHS hospitals in England, including overseas visitors:.
- A&E services – but not emergency treatment once you have been admitted to hospital
- family planning services – but not termination of pregnancy or infertility treatment
- treatment for most infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- treatment required for a physical or mental condition caused by torture, female genital mutilation, domestic violence or sexual violence – this does not apply if you have come to England to seek this treatment unless you have applied for, or have been granted, asylum status
Choosing a hospital or consultant
If you're referred for your first outpatient appointment, in most cases you have the right to choose which hospital in England to go to.
This will include many private and NHS hospitals that provide services to the NHS.
You're also able to choose which consultant-led team will be in charge of your treatment, as long as that team provides the treatment you require.
If you wish to be treated by a particular consultant for a procedure, you can choose to have your first outpatient appointment at the hospital where the consultant works and be treated by that consultant's team.
But this does not necessarily mean you'll be seen by the consultant themselves.
This choice is a legal right. If you're not offered a choice at the point of referral, ask your doctor why and say that you wish to go through your options.
If you're still not offered a choice or are refused, contact your local clincal commissioning group (CCG).
CCGs are NHS bodies responsible for the planning and commissioning of health care services for your local area.
If a GP wants to refer you for a service or treatment that they think is best for you but is not routinely offered by the NHS, the process is different.
The GP will have to submit an Individual Funding Request (IFR) to your CCG and provide details of where they want you to go.
CCGs will publish information about individual funding requests on their website.
You do not have a legal right to choice if:
- you need urgent or emergency treatment
- you're serving in the armed forces
- you're accessing maternity services
- you're detained under the Mental Health Act
- you're detained in or on temporary release from prison, in court, an immigration removal centre or a secure children's home
- you're referred to high-security psychiatric services or drug and alcohol misuse services provided by local authorities
Visit GOV.UK to read more about your legal rights to choice in the NHS.
How the NHS website can help you choose
On this site, you can compare different hospitals according to what matters most to you, such as waiting times, patient safety, complaints or quality of food.
Use the services near you search tool to find your nearest hospital.
You can also read what other patients have said about the hospital or leave your own feedback.
Simply select the "Leave review" option provided on each hospital profile to record your experiences about the treatment you received.
You can also find out how a consultant performs for a particular procedure or compare consultants from different hospitals before you make your choice for your first outpatient appointment.
Use our consultant search tool to try it out.
For some specialties, you'll also be able to see how many times a consultant has performed a particular procedure, including quality measures such as complication rates, adverse events and mortality rates.
You'll also be able to compare the information to other consultants for this particular specialty in England.
How to book your appointment
Once you have decided on a hospital, you can book your first outpatient appointment through the NHS e-Referral Service.
How long do I have to wait for my appointment?
If your referral is for non-urgent care, you have the right to start treatment led by a consultant within 18 weeks of being referred, unless you want to wait longer or waiting longer is clinically right for you.
Letters about your care
When doctors write to each other about your care, they should aim to give you a copy of their letters or emails.
If you do not get a copy, you can ask for one.
Page last reviewed: 11 April 2019
Next review due: 11 April 2022