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Last updated: 31.07.17

Public vs Private: The differences between both sectors in healthcare

What's the difference between private and public sectors?

Working in the public sector differs significantly from the private sector when it comes to working in the healthcare industry, with differences in regulation, pay and training.

Those working in healthcare have the option of working in either the public or private sector. Both sectors have their strengths and weaknesses and can be very different from each other when it comes to the working environment. A professional's role however, be it nursing or working as a doctor, doesn’t change much in either sector, but there are variations that could influence their decision.

For example, working in the public sector will ensure that you are kept busy, especially with the current strain on the NHS. Government regulations and training are also usually more strictly enforced in the public sector where in private hospitals there is more of a focus on profit. Here we take a look at the differences between each sector in more detail.

What is the NHS?

The public sector’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free healthcare to citizens living in the UK. The majority of professionals working in the public sector will work for the NHS either as primary care nurses with patients at the onset of a health problem or as secondary or emergency care nurses handling patients with specialist issues that have been referred to them from a primary doctor. Other roles include tertiary care nurses that are specialised care-givers, working in areas such as cardiac surgery.

According to the Nursing Times, on average, statistics show that the public sector pays roughly £5k more per year than the private sector, with the NHS having a straightforward set pay scale.

However, according to a study by Professor Alex Bryson at University College London and John Forth, a fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, in recent years doctors experienced a drop from £38 an hour to £30 in median real earnings. In addition to this, the study found that nurses reported median real earnings of £16 an hour in 2005, rising to £17 an hour in 2010, before dropping back to just over £16 in 2015, showing a slight rise of 1.4 per cent over the decade.

Career progression

When it comes to career progression, working in the public sector for the NHS will provide workers with a lot of room for development, whereas the private sector is more limited in this respect. However, this doesn’t mean that workers can move from one sector to the other, and with increased strain on the NHS, it is relatively easy for those who have worked in the private sector to then get a public sector job.

When it comes to flexible working and annual leave, there is usually more scope for those working in the private sector. In the NHS, annual leave will be clearly set out but privately, employees may be able to negotiate flexible working and when they can take annual leave.

Private sector healthcare

While the public sector has to spend taxpayers money wisely and adhere to many regulations, the private sector is, in simple terms, a business and, therefore, has a goal of making a profit. You could argue that because of this, the way in which money is spent is more closely analysed.

In the UK, the private sector offers patients acute care services, as well as providing the majority of long-term care available. While this sector has fewer hospitals than the NHS, it helps to take patients away from the strained NHS by reducing waiting lists and ensuring patients are seen and treated as quickly as possible.

What is Private Health Insurance?

Health insurance or private medical insurance covers the cost medical treatment provided outside of the NHS. Private health insurance treats acute conditions which are likely to respond to treatment quickly such as back pain or digestive issues.

Why do people buy Private Health Insurance?

According to providers private health insurance gives their customers faster access to healthcare, condition specialist and breakthrough drugs and treatments.

Private health insurance can offer customers access to private hospitals where due to lower patient numbers and bigger spending budgets compared to the NHS they often receive a much higher standard of care

At the moment only around 10% of the U.K have purchased private healthcare insurance, however this number may be on the rise as NHS waiting times continue to increase.

However, while private sector healthcare offers patients a choice, it must be paid for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has sparked controversy in regards to privatisation favouring the elite while neglecting the most vulnerable members of society who are unable to afford private healthcare.


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