Plan for pay as you go healthcare
If you want to go private but don't want to pay health insurance premiums each month then you can always pay for one-off treatments. Many people who choose to 'self-pay' do so because they have a medical condition that requires urgent treatment, which means insurance is a no-go.
You can pay for private treatment in the same way you would for anything else, using cash, cheque or credit card – usually on or before admission to hospital. But with treatment costs high it may not be quite so easy to lay your hands on the money you need without planning ahead.
Many people are shocked at just how pricey medical treatment is.
A recent survey by Standard Life Healthcare showed that just 14% of people knew that a knee operation could cost £14,500, with 22% believing it could be as little as £3,500. Despite such misconceptions, the same survey revealed that many of us - 57% - would consider going private rather than waiting for NHS treatment.
So, if you're thinking about going private in the future, it's sensible to earmark some of your savings to cover health costs or to start building savings in a high-interest account so you have a substantial fund to draw on should you need it.
With cost such an issue, it makes sense to find out exactly how long it would take you to get treatment on the NHS - talk to your GP about all the available options.
Get a recommendation
If you still feel that you'd prefer to go private then you'll need to ask your GP to write a referral letter to a private consultant. Your GP is often the best place to recommend a specialist, but you can ask them to refer you to any specialist you choose.
If you do want to see a specific consultant then this will usually determine which hospital you get treated in - and vice versa, of course, if you have your heart set on a specific hospital.
Seeking the right private treatment can seem a complex business and it can be difficult comparing the services and prices across the market. However, there is information out there - it's just a case of knowing where to look.
One useful starting point is a website called Private Healthcare UK (www.privatehealth.co.uk) which includes step-by-step guides and search facilities to help you find private treatment in your area. It also provides links to all the main private hospital companies, so you can conduct your own research.
When choosing a hospital, Keith Pollard, director of Private Health UK, says it's important to ask lots of questions about the facilities for your specific treatment.
"For example, if you have an orthopaedic operation, ask if there's a dedicated ward, specialist nurses and a physiotherapy room on the ward," he says. "And if you're going for a major operation, ask if it has a high dependency unit."
Check the facts
Other factors to consider are hospital infection rates and patient satisfaction scores. The main hospital groups tend to put these scores on their websites. The Healthcare Commission also publishes the results of inspections of private hospitals on the internet.
Once you've decided on a hospital, you need to get some clear guidelines on how much the treatment will cost. If you only require out-patient treatment, this will usually be charged per consultation and paid on the day or soon after, so ask how much it will cost before your appointment.
If you are referred for in-patient treatment, many of the major hospital groups provide fixed-price packages. This will be one price that includes all your medical and nursing care while at hospital, such as private accommodation, operating theatre fees, surgeon fees and any drugs or dressings needed while in hospital.
However, you do need to ensure that you're clear on what's included in the price, so ask for a breakdown. It's also worth asking if the price includes extras such as pre-operation assessments and tests or post-operation consultation, therapy or diagnostics, such as blood tests and X-rays.
Also ask what happens in terms of pricing should complications arise and your hospital stay is longer than expected.
If you're not happy with the price, it may be worth trying to negotiate. "If the consultant works at two hospitals, ask them - or the hospitals - what the package price is at each. Then call the finance director at each hospital and ask for a deal. The hospital may well offer a discount," advises Pollard.
You're not alone
If all this sounds daunting, there are services that can guide you through the process and even do the leg work to help find you the best deal.
One such service, Medical Care Direct, charges an annual membership fee and in return will approach hospitals on your behalf to get quotes and help you compare treatment across the different hospital groups. "We take care of all the paperwork and can often find people better rates because of the volumes of business we arrange," says Medical Care Direct's managing director, Malcolm Jones.
If you want to cut costs and don't mind travelling further afield to get treatment, it can also find you the cheapest deal across the UK.
"It may be that you can get a hip replacement operation for £1,000 cheaper if you travel from Birmingham to, say, Glasgow," says Jones. "On the other hand, you may already know where you want to be treated and we can then take care of all the administration for you, such as arranging admissions and paying bills."
When paying for private treatment, the fee usually has to be paid upfront, so you need to have your finances sorted beforehand. If you don't have the spare cash to hand, there are specialist finance companies that offer medical loans, many of which are linked to specific hospital groups.
For example, BUPA refers patients to a company called First Medical Loans, which offers a range of finance plans, or you can secure a personal loan from Clydesdale Financial Services through Nuffield Hospitals.
Alternatively, you can use an ordinary credit card or personal loan to pay for your treatment. As with any form of borrowing, you should shop around and weigh up your options. If you take the first offer to come your way, you may end up paying more than you need.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.