How To Become A Private Doctor (UK Private Practice)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

In many ways, private doctors reap the rewards of working in healthcare without putting up with the stresses and strains the NHS places on its employees.

Private medical facilities are often better staffed than NHS hospitals, shift patterns are often more sociable (fewer nights and weekends) and the salaries are generally higher in the private sector compared to the public.

In this article, I’m going to explain how you can become a private doctor in the UK if you want to be a medical professional, but working in the NHS doesn’t really appeal to you.

What Actually Is A Private Doctor?

Before getting too excited about your future life as a bigwig high-earning private doctor, it’s important to understand what a private doctor actually is.

A private doctor is a doctor employed by a company or individual as opposed to the NHS. This could be a surgeon who works in a private hospital, a GP who works on a cruise ship or a doctor offering private liposuction to patients.

In reality, there aren’t many doctors in the UK who work exclusively privately.

Most will do a mixture of both NHS and private work. They might work in the NHS for 3 days a week and then work in a private facility for 2 days a week.

There are a few different reasons for this that I’ll touch on later in the article, but the key takeaway is that there isn’t always a clear distinction between ‘private’ doctors and ‘public’ doctors in the UK.

However, although healthcare in the UK is dominated by the NHS, private doctors do very much exist and such a career path can offer an incredibly lucrative route to those who choose to pursue it.

How To Be A Private Doctor

You may be disappointed to learn that you can’t be a private doctor immediately from the point of graduating from medical school.

Straight after graduating in the UK, doctors gain a provisional registration with the General Medical Council (GMC).

This means they’re allowed to practice as a doctor only in an approved training program- under the supervision of a more senior doctor.

It’s only after having worked as a doctor in the NHS for at least 1 year that you’d be able to take up a private job.

However, private jobs for such junior doctors are very rare. Much more commonly, doctors are employed in the private sector once they’ve completely finished their training i.e. are consultants or fully-qualified GPs.

Private surgeon performing an operation

This means that it can take doctors 5-8 years after graduating from medical school before they’re able to go private.

Once they’re at this point, a doctor can choose to start practising privately either by applying for a job with a private medical company or by setting up their own private medical practice.

Applying for a job is simple enough- you’d simply have to respond to a job offer looking for a doctor.

There are tonnes of opportunities out there once you start looking. Everything from working for a company like Bupa to working on an oil rig to offering private cosmetic procedures.

Setting up a private practice is a bit more of a complicated procedure. It will generally mean generating and maintaining a list of patients that will use the services of the private doctor in question.

Can NHS Doctors Do Private Work?

As I mentioned before, most doctors who work privately will also actually work in the NHS.

Commonly, this looks like a surgeon who performs operations for private patients a couple of days a week and works in the NHS for the rest of the week.

If you work for the NHS, there’s nothing stopping you from working privately on top.

Alternatively, although it’s not strictly private work, as you’re still working for the NHS, lots of doctors choose to take on extra shifts on top of their normal contracted hours.

These are termed ‘locum’ shifts and are essentially like doing a bit of extra temp work.

If a ward or department is short of a doctor for whatever reason (sickness, annual leave or they’re just a doctor short) they can put shifts out to locum.

If you’re a doctor who normally works at that hospital, or you’ve signed up to their locum bank, you can then pick up these extra shifts for additional pay on top of your normal monthly wage.

These shifts are generally advertised at a much higher hourly rate than a normal doctor’s contract in order to incentivise people to take on the extra work.

Other NHS doctors may choose to take on other forms of private work purely in their spare time.

For example, there are companies that provide medical support to festivals.

I’ve got a couple of friends who sign up to work shifts with the company, so get paid to work as a doctor at the festival and also get a free ticket to see some live music.

How Much Do Private Doctors Earn?

It’s almost impossible to put an exact figure on how much private doctors earn in the UK.

For one, this is due to the fact that as discussed many doctors work both for the NHS and privately- so their salary will represent both of these income streams.

Secondly, many doctors with a private practice choose to set it up via the framework of a limited company.

This has significant tax advantages for a high-earning consultant doctor.

Instead of being directly taxed on their earnings in the top tax bracket, they’re able to take dividends from the company and invest profits without paying anywhere near as much tax at the point of earning.

In theory, once they retire, they’re then able to draw down some of this capital once they drop into a lower tax bracket.

As a general rule of thumb, surgical specialties with long waiting lists and short procedure times have the greatest private earning potential.

This includes specialties such as dermatology (skin), orthopaedics (joints), ENT (ear nose & throat)…

Few doctors will publicly boast about their salaries but I think it’s reasonable to think an NHS consultant on £100,000 a year from the NHS can expect to double or even triple their salary depending on how much private work they take on.

At the very top end of the spectrum, there will always be doctors earning far above the average salary for their specialty.

The very highest-earning doctors in the country will command salaries of over 1 million pounds a year, but these are of course the extreme outliers.

They’re top surgeons in prestigious locations such as Harley Street who will exclusively see private patients and charge according to their expertise.

Can A GP Work Privately?

A UK GP can very easily find private work outside, or instead of, their NHS work.

There are a number of different companies that hire GPs as private doctors in order to give their clients unprecedented access to a medical professional.

Due to how difficult it can be for patients to secure an NHS GP appointment, increasing numbers of people are turning to these private medical companies in order to be able to see a GP as and when they want.

In addition to face-to-face appointments, there are also services that offer purely virtual GP consultations.

A patient speaking to a private GP over video

If the private GP on one end of the video chat thinks the patient needs to be seen face-to-face, they will simply refer them to their usual NHS GP.

GPs, in addition to emergency medicine doctors, are also some of the most desirable types of doctors for some of the more obscure work within the field of medicine.

This is because both GPs and ED consultants are generalists- they’ll see anything that walks through their door and will be able to have a sensible stab at initiating the best management plan.

This means that cruise ships, film production companies and scientific expeditions are all keen to hire GPs when the need for a doctor arises.

I’ve actually met one of the doctors who led the medical cover for the filming of one of David Attenborough’s nature documentary series- and she was, of course, a GP.

What Are The Advantages Of Working As A Private Doctor?

With the NHS in its current state, there are plenty of clear advantages to working as a private doctor and I’ll admit it’s easy to see its appeal.

First and foremost for many people, doctors are paid more in the private sector than they are in the NHS.

The strikes in early 2023 proved that junior doctors feel chronically undervalued and are arguably underpaid for the work they do.

Private medicine then offers an alternative to working for the NHS with what many would call far more fair compensation.

Private Medicine Pros And Cons Pixel Infographic

Not only this but working privately often offers a less stressful, less hectic, and less manic experience compared to the NHS.

Private GPs are able to spend longer with each patient, without chock-a-block clinic lists forcing doctors to kick patients out of the consultation room despite unfinished business.

With greater resources at their disposal, there can also be times when private doctors can offer a better level of care to patients compared to the NHS.

As the doctor, this can feel great as you know you’re offering the best possible level of care to the patient in front of you.

For example, a doctor may have a far lower threshold for ordering a private MRI scan (that could just double check there was nothing sinister going on with a patient) compared to the NHS where there are month-long waiting lists for such a limited resource.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Working As A Private Doctor?

Despite its draws, there are also undoubtedly some disadvantages to working as a private doctor.

Private patients tend to be the simpler, healthier patients who are paying for a single operation, treatment or procedure.

This means that, for example, surgeons that work exclusively privately can start to deskill a little as they come across fewer complex, multi-morbid patients.

A fit 75-year-old lady may pay for a private hip operation in order to skip the year-long waiting list for her area while an NHS patient could be a road traffic accident victim with multiple injuries and medical conditions that needs the same procedure.

If you enter into private practice as a more junior doctor, you also have the added disadvantage that private jobs will always be about the service you’re providing.

Someone is paying a considerable amount of money for what medical service you’re providing so it always has to be top-notch.

While doctors in the NHS will always strive to provide the best care possible, there is also recognition that we constantly need to be training the next generation of doctors.

Therefore, it may sometimes be suitable for the trainee to carry out a procedure, under the supervision of a consultant, rather than the consultant themselves.

If you aren’t a fully-qualified doctor who’s finished their training, a private medical job will likely offer you fewer training opportunities compared to working in the NHS.

Final Thoughts

Private medicine is an appealing path for many doctors that can offer a whole host of benefits above and beyond the NHS.

However, I think you’d be sorely mistaken to go to medical school and enter medicine as a profession with the sole intent of becoming a private doctor.

Being a private doctor in the UK is often interwoven with working for the NHS and each can provide its own advantages and disadvantages.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.