Best health insurance companies

In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have the NHS, but with pressure on services rising, many of us are also thinking about private healthcare. Here, we briefly explore how health insurance works and summarise some of the biggest providers in the market, so that you can decide if it’s right for you.

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What are the different types of health insurance?

Health insurance is an umbrella term that covers different plans, so it can be confusing to work out what you actually need. Here, we’ve summarised the different packages you can buy, but if you want a more in-depth look at what’s covered, we’ve put together these comprehensive guides:

Private medical insurance (PMI)

Also called private health insurance (PHI), this is what most of us think of when we talk about private healthcare.

PMI sits alongside essential NHS services and covers the cost of treatment for a range of acute conditions.

What is an acute condition?

Acute conditions are short-term illnesses which usually have a clear set of symptoms which can be diagnosed and treated. Hospital stays are generally short-term even if there is longer-term follow up care.

What is a chronic condition?

Chronic conditions are long-term illnesses or health problems that can’t be cured. Instead, chronic conditions need to be managed on a regular basis, usually with medication or therapeutic treatment. Examples of chronic conditions include:

  • Diabetes
  • Certain respiratory conditions, including asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Long Covid
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as CFS or ME)

How does private medical insurance work?

Usually, you’ll need a referral from your GP. Once that’s done, you’ll be able to access treatment covered by your policy.

Like many other types of insurance, what’s included in your policy will vary according to the provider. As a general rule, the more tailored the package and the more it covers, the more it’s likely to cost.

In most instances, PMI provides services alongside essential NHS care. For example, you’d still use A&E in an emergency and most PMI policies don’t cover childbirth.

Most private health insurance providers will also give you the option of sticking with NHS treatment if the waiting list is less than six weeks. If you choose this feature, it can help reduce your premium.

Policies vary but you can expect PMI to cover:

  • Inpatient treatment – including diagnostic tests, hospital stays, consultancy fees and after care (essentially everything you need from diagnosis through to recovery).
  • Outpatient treatment – diagnostic tests, consultancy fees and any follow up treatment. This isn’t always provided as standard and if it is, it’s often limited either to a certain value or fixed number of appointments.
  • Day patient treatment – if you’re a day patient, you’ll usually need a higher level of care compared to if you were an outpatient. For example, you may need a hospital bed for the day or have minor surgery.

What are the benefits of private medical insurance?

  • Access to greater range of treatments, including cancer drugs that might not be available on the NHS.
  • Faster treatment enables you to bypass NHS waiting lists, you can also usually choose treatment at times that suit you.
  • Choice of hospitals but bear in mind that some providers have a tiered system. For example, a basic (cheaper) package could mean a more limited choice of hospitals.
  • If you’re an inpatient, you’ll get access to a private room with more facilities (such as an en-suite).

What are the drawbacks of private medical insurance?

  • Private care doesn’t always guarantee ‘better’ care, medical professionals in the private sector also work in NHS hospitals.
  • Acute conditions are typically dealt with quickly on the NHS, so having PMI doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be treated any faster.
  • Pre-existing and chronic conditions aren’t usually covered.
  • PMI can be expensive, and the price is likely to rise as you get older.

Cash plans

Cash plans generally cost less than PMI and can help cover the cost of routine healthcare – for example, going to the dentist, the optician or chiropodist. As with PMI, you can usually tailor your plan to suit you, the more options you choose, the more you can expect your premium to be.

What are the benefits of a cash plan?

  • Can help with the cost of routine health appointments.
  • Can help with the cost of treatment, including glasses or hearing aids.
  • Typically, low monthly premiums.
  • Some policies offer additional benefits, for example medical helplines available 24/7.
  • Some policies cover pre-existing conditions.

What are the drawbacks of a cash plan?

  • If you don’t need treatment, cost of premiums might outweigh cost of appointments in the long run (depending on your age, lifestyle and where you live).
  • You’ll usually need to pay for your appointments and treatments first and then claim the money back.

Critical illness cover

This type of insurance provides a lump sum payment if you’re diagnosed with a condition that’s covered in your policy (often this includes, stroke, heart attack or some types of cancer).

The amount of cover you need will depend on your circumstances, but some providers suggest the value of your policy should be roughly three times your annual salary. As a guide, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) show that the average critical illness payment in 2021 was £67,951.

To help you work out what you might need, think about all the expenses you usually cover, and any that are in your immediate future, for instance:

  • Mortgage
  • School or university fees
  • Outstanding loans

Remember – if you have life insurance, check to see if critical illness is part of the policy, otherwise you could end up paying for something you already have.

Who is the best private health insurance provider?

The best health insurance provider for you will depend on your own needs and budget. To help give you an idea of what’s available, we’ve summarised what’s on offer from the leading private healthcare providers in Britain, according to data from Statista.

We then compared the cost of a basic private health insurance policy (where available) for a man aged 40 who is a non-smoker and in general good health. We’ve chosen to find quotes for PMI as this is typically the most expensive option (some cash plans start from well under £10 per month and critical illness could be less than £20 per month for someone aged between 40 and 49).

We found that costs for couples was roughly double the cost for a single person (again, dependent on overall good health).

We’ve chosen a £250 excess (or closest to this) but you can help lower premiums by opting for a higher excess. Lowering the excess will increase your premium but it will mean you pay less when you make a claim. We’ve also outlined any other types of health insurance available, any standout perks or particular drawbacks and included Trustpilot ratings.

AvivaAXABenenden HealthBupaSimply HealthVitality
Private medical insurance (PMI)
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Discretionary service
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PMI cost per month£36£43.51£12.80£41.40-£45.70
PMI cost per year£432£496.02£153.60£496.80-£548.40
PMI policy excess£200£250£0£250-£250
Cash plan
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Optional extra with private health insurance
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From £7.65 p/m
Not available to new customers
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From £7.50 p/m
Optional extra with private health insurance
Critical illness cover
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Particular benefits
  • Cheapest plan compared to other traditional private health providers
  • ‘Working Body’ programme offers physiotherapy advice over the phone (no GP referral needed)
  • Generous no claims discounts (up to 80%)
  • Flat fee for all patients
  • One of the largest private networks in the UK providing a wide range of choice
  • Online physio assessments
  • Mental health support 24/7
  • Discounts on popular brands
  • Some corrective & weight loss surgeries included as standard
  • Menopause support
Particular drawbacksPoor reviews for customer serviceHighest percentage of 1 star rating on Trustpilot (20%) with complaints about slow processes and poor customer serviceServices only accessible if NHS waiting times exceed their thresholdNo option to reduce premiums by opting for NHS treatmentComplaints mainly relate to slow claims processesDoes not offer a no claims discount
Trustpilot ratings4.3/54/54.5/54/54.1/53.8/5
Defaqto rated?YesYesNoYesNoYes

Defaqto provides independent ratings for financial products and services. Their maximum five stars is awarded for products that have comprehensive features and benefits. You can find out more about their ratings system at Defaqto.com.

Standard features for PMI were fairly similar between all the providers, so there was no one healthcare provider that was significantly ‘better’ than any of the others. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to choose between them and the right policy for you will ultimately depend on the specific features you’re looking for. Here’s a quick look at each of the providers for more context.

Aviva

Aviva doesn’t just cover health insurance so for most of us, they’ll be a familiar household name. They also score well on Trustpilot with 4.3 out of five stars overall, with 74% of customers awarding them the full five stars, 13% gave them one star (bear in mind these reviews are across all their products and not just health cover).

Reviewers are generally most unhappy about how difficult it is to contact Aviva – either through live chat or by phone (with some reviewers waiting for well over an hour).

Aviva offered one of the cheapest PMI policies and support general health and wellbeing with discounts on health and fitness activities.

Axa

Out of just over 6,800 reviews on Trustpilot, 60% of customers gave Axa five out of five stars with 20% giving them just one star. Main complaints include slow response time (which is by no means unique to Axa) but also the length of time it took for general admin to be completed and for claims to be paid.

Axa does however, offer one of the most generous no claims discounts so if you’re in good health and don’t need to claim, you could be rewarded with a premium discount of up to 80% if you keep renewing.

Benenden Health

It’s important to know that Benenden Health don’t call themselves a health insurance provider. Instead, they offer a service that ‘complements’ NHS services, which is why their healthcare plan currently costs just £12.80 per month regardless of your age or medical history.

The low price reflects the fact that Benenden Health, only carries out treatment from a set list of procedures, so it won’t cover treatment or surgery that is readily available on the NHS. Generally, this means cancer care, brain and heart disease are not covered by them. Services are also provided on a discretionary basis subject to certain conditions.

If you sign up, you’ll get immediate access to a GP and mental health helpline (available 24/7). You’ll also be able to get advice and guidance on care planning, including long-term care. There are also discounts on gym membership, cinema tickets and gift cards available. After six months, you’ll be able to access diagnostic and treatment services as well as physiotherapy.

Benenden Health’s main attraction is their cash plan which starts from as little as £7.65 per month. You can also claim 100% of your money back on routine appointments, as well as for other therapies including physio and acupuncture (up to the limit set). There’s also no upper age limit and dependent children are covered for free if you have family cover.

Bupa

Bupa is one of the largest private healthcare providers in the UK which means patients have a good choice of hospitals and clinics. Services include access to advice from qualified nurses 24/7 as well as access to a GP within 24 hours. There’s good support for mental health which includes CBT and talking therapies.

Depending on your policy, you can speak to Bupa directly without waiting for a GP referral. Plus, you can enjoy rewards including discounts off gym memberships, English Heritage membership and brands including Fitbit and Crocus.

One of Bupa’s biggest drawbacks is that they don’t have the option of taking up NHS treatment if the waiting list is six weeks or under, which usually brings the cost of premiums down.

Out of nearly 19,000 reviews on Trustpilot, 67% gave Bupa five out of five stars, while 9% gave them just one star. One of the main pain points for patients is getting hold of someone in their customer service team. However, this isn’t limited to Bupa, and overall poor service is a complaint across most of the providers we looked at.

Simply Health

Simply Health cash plans are available in five levels with level one costing just £7.50 per month. However, while this basic package gives you access to a GP via video call 24/7, there are restrictive limits on what you can actually claim for.

If you want to be able to claim back money for routine eye appointments and dental treatments, you’ll need a level two package at the very least (starting from £10 per month).

Out of just under 2,400 reviews on Trustpilot, 77% scored them five out of five stars, 12% scored them just one star. Main complaints deal with claims taking a while to appear on the system (leading to issues with reimbursement).

Vitality

Vitality was one of the first healthcare providers to reward healthier lifestyles with their points system. Instead of a traditional no claims discount, you have the chance to earn points for taking part in activities – for instance, going to the gym, running or hitting a certain number of steps in one day. Those points are logged in the Vitality app which can then be used to claim even bigger discounts and more rewards.

Vitality have just under 28,000 reviews on Trustpilot with 67% of customers giving them five out of five stars, 15% gave them just one star. Despite providing a plethora of services, a number of customers felt that their services weren’t joined up, leading to problems getting appointments in the first place. There were also multiple negative reviews about poor customer service with policyholders struggling to speak to advisors.

How to choose the best private health insurance provider

Taking out private health insurance is a very personal choice, and it goes without saying, there’s a lot to think about. On the one hand, PMI can give you faster access to diagnostics and treatment and provide you with greater choice in terms of where you’re treated. However, these benefits also need to be weighed up in terms of cost, exclusions and your own medical history. For example, most PMI providers exclude treatment for pre-existing conditions. This may mean you aren’t eligible for key treatment related to cancer care.

You’ll also need to remember that policies come with an excess, so you’ll need to pay something if you need to make a claim. You can usually lower your excess, but this will mean an increase in your premium.

With all this in mind, it’s worth taking the time to consider:

What your budget is as this can help determine what’s available to you. What illnesses and treatment you want cover for. What additional features and benefits are important to you, for instance, are you willing to pay extra for more outpatient services or access to physiotherapy. Expectations on service, no provider is perfect so while reviews offer an indication of service, it’s not a universal reflection. If you have friends or family with private healthcare, asking them for opinions can give you valuable first-hand advice.

Should I get cheap healthcare insurance?

Most of us want to save money where we can but when it comes to health insurance, it’s worth thinking more about value. Instead of focussing on cost alone, compare what’s available and base your decision on what’s important to you – whether that’s complete private care or saving money on everyday costs with a cash plan.

Remember to look closely at exclusions too and not just looking at what’s covered. It’s easy to get swept away with all the benefits and then not realise what’s been excluded until it’s too late.

When we compared quotes, the process was almost too quick for what is (ultimately) a big expense. All the quote processes were very easy and only asked basic health questions related to smoking and pre-existing conditions.

However, going from getting a quote to being presented with a buy now page happened in just a few clicks, which made it feel like we were being forced into a decision.

All in all, don’t feel the need to rush into a decision. Most quotes will be valid for at least a couple of weeks so use that time to carefully go through your options. Plus, don’t forget, you also have a minimum 14-day cooling off period so if you change your mind, that’s ok.

Erin Yurday

Erin Yurday is the CEO, Co-founder and Editor of NimbleFins. Prior to NimbleFins, she worked as an investment professional and as the finance expert in Stanford University's Graduate School of Business case writing team. Read more on LinkedIn.

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