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Where should I go when I’m ill? GP vs hospital vs A&E

I realised that I was not knowledgeable about the British medical system when I was recently terribly ill during the exam period. It was not surprising that I got sick as I have had immune system problems since I was born. However, it was embarrassing that I had no idea where I should call or go for help. I’d like to share basic information about the medical system in the UK.

GP & Surgery

General practitioners treat all common medical conditions and refer patients to hospitals and other medical services for urgent and specialist treatment, so they are the first people you should see when you feel a medical condition. They take care of physical, psychological and social aspects, and registration and an appointment are necessary.

Find a GP near me.

Surgery is an office of a GP. A GP might have different numbers for GP and surgery, but the important thing is that you need to go through the registration process online or in person. Online systems are different depending on a GP or its group, so if you find it difficult to fill in an online form, you should contact them. (Due to Covid-19, I’m not sure if they allow walk-in registration.) The paper might ask for your NHS number, which is 10- digit number. Before you register with a GP, you only have an IHS number, so feel free to skip it and get the number afterwards.

Link to find NHS number.

*the International Health Surcharge (IHS) is the payment or surcharge visa applicants pay that gives access to the National Health Service (NHS).


There are two general types of hospital in the UK. National Health Service (NHS) hospitals are free while independent hospitals are not as they are run by private companies or charities. They are bigger than GPs and the waiting time is longer. Regarding my personal experiences and British friends’ experiences, we find workers in NHS hospitals too relaxed. You may want to check reviews of hospitals you are planning to visit!


Accident and emergency(24hr) is a hospital's emergency department that allows walk-in. You go to this place when you need prompt help. You can google A&E near you in your area in advance. However, unless you are going to pass out or badly injured, you need to wait for several hours.

Although you paid for NHS, you will be charged for your medication. If you have insurance from your home country, you might be able to get cashback. Frankly, I wasn’t registered with any GP as I thought the university doesn’t have one on campus, so A&E was my only choice. Therefore, I recommend you register with GP once you arrive in the UK. Lastly, if you are from countries that opium is illegal, it is advisable to ask your doctor or pharmacist if your painkiller contains it. They prescribe it for people who are in big pain, but I got side effects because of it. I ended up staying with paramedics in the middle of the night. Take care!

One half an image showing blue sky and the other showing the inside of an ambulance