“Health insurance can feel expensive. If you’re not feeling well, it’s priceless.” That’s the kind of slogan you’ll read quite often, on websites just like ours. But private medical insurance policies do have a tangible value: in addition to the peace of mind you’re securing, they’ll help to pay for a range of costs – most of which you’d have no control over, and almost all of which you’d find hard to evaluate as an individual who wanted to ‘go private’.
How do you ‘go private’, anyway?
Every healthcare trust and facility runs their operations slightly differently. But if there’s a procedure or treatment you’d like to look into on your own, you usually can. However, there’s quite a process to follow:
- In the first instance, most people have to visit a GP for a referral. Private facilities are unlikely to treat you without a recommendation in writing, and the GP may charge you for writing that letter. Oh – and the chances are, you may need time off work to fit in with the GP’s schedule too.
- Then you’d probably have to go to an out-patient’s appointment. You may need diagnostic tests done, but you may have to come back for those – and as an individual, you have very little influence over their timing. This initial consultation could cost upwards of £150, which won’t include costs for any tests.
- If you need an operation? It depends what it is, but prices vary obviously. You’d have to get a quote from the hospital or clinic, and probably sign a disclaimer agreeing to pay extra costs if complications rose in surgery.
- After a procedure (and we haven’t added in the costs of staying in hospital yet), you’d probably want to check things are going well – so there’d be more costs involved in seeing your consultant again. Maybe extra costs for follow-up scans, too. And if you need physiotherapy perhaps, or a course of post-operative treatment – there’d be a price to pay for that as well.
As a very rough example of your total so far, you’ve probably incurred £25 for a GP’s letter, £150 for the Consultant’s appointment, let’s say £75 for an X-Ray … and you haven’t even started treatment yet. You can see how things start to mount up.
An example – private MRI costs
An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan can help to diagnose illness or injury that can’t be seen because it’s internal. Typically, an MRI scan costs somewhere around £400 to £600. The equipment is expensive; it’s a specialised process; much depends on which company or hospital is providing the service and where you live.
Private firms do advertise MRI scans from £199, but to get them that cheaply you’d have to book at least two weeks in advance. But that’s in a limited number of locations. And there’s no guarantee you could scan ‘another body area’ on the day if it was necessary. And you’d be limited to when you could have the appointment. And that price probably doesn’t include the costs of having a professional clinician to interpret the results, either…
Then, think about that accommodation for a moment. Treatment in a private hospital may give you several choices on a menu, fresh flowers and a TV with plenty to watch, but there are costs involved in that quality of environment.
Having said that, the price of rehabilitation in pleasant circumstances is not to be under-valued – but there is always a price to pay. NHS facilities can be excellent, but even there you may have to pay for shared ward accommodation if you’re going in for elective procedures (choosing to have them at a particular time, rather than needing them clinically, immediately).
The cost of hospital tests, why do they vary?
All sorts of factors influence the price of tests and procedures in hospital. Most are common sense: how complex it is, how many specialist clinicians are involved, whereabouts in the country are you being treated, the availability of equipment and resources etc.
One of the reasons it’s hard for insurers to demonstrate the value of a policy, is that those costs can vary so much from region to region. For example: the South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust advertised charges of £475 for a hysteroscopy in 2014; the Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust charged £1,111. It’s important to stress that the administration and make-up of those charges is different from facility to facility – but immediately you can see how prices vary. (We’ve taken those prices from the Trusts’ own websites.)
Another example: a private hip replacement. In the South East, that could range from £8,200 at the BMI Coombe Wing, to £12,704 at the Spire Thames Valley Hospital. In the Midlands and East Anglia, you’d be asked to pay £7,610 at Aspen Hollyhouse Hospital, but £14,980 at the Spire in Norwich. (Those prices came from privatehealth.co.uk in June 2014: it’s a useful site if you’re looking for ball-park figures in your area).
‘Ballpark private health costs’ just aren’t good enough
When it come to private health care costs though, that’s the problem. As an individual, it’s very hard to work out what’s reasonable as a ballpark figure. Is £200 too much to pay for an ECG exam? How about £6,000 to replace a pacemaker? It’s hard to tell. And the harsh fact of the matter is there’s very little you can do to negotiate on those costs, audit them, or work out what’s included up-front and what’s not. What’s more alarming, is that – as a private patient, ‘going it alone’ – how can you be sure the treatment being suggested is the right one?
That’s where the clinical expertise, the experience, the in-house knowledge, the negotiating power, the ability to ‘jump queues’, and the auditing capabilities of an insurer like Aviva have such an important role to play. That’s the real value of private health insurance. It’s not private health care costs you can compare on the internet that are so hard to evaluate: it’s the cost of getting the right treatment, at the right time, from the right people, in the right place and at the right price – that’s absolutely priceless.