The National Health Service (NHS) provides a wide range of medical coverage for residents of the United Kingdom. Dental, vision, hospitalization, mental health, and general preventative treatment are all covered to some extent by the NHS. (Learn More)

If you have a chronic vision problem that could lead to blindness, the NHS will cover much of your treatment, including some types of laser surgery. (Learn More) However, if you want LASIK to improve nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism, this is not covered by the NHS at all. (Learn More)

Private clinics in the United Kingdom offer LASIK, just like in the United States, and they charge similar rates per eye. (Learn More)

The NHS & Vision Care

Health insurance blocks

The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom covers a wide range of medical, dental, and vision problems. Care from hospitals, mental health professionals, opticians, dentists, pharmacists, reproductive specialists, and general practitioners is all available through this nationwide, government-managed health care service.

While many preventative and treatment services are available through the NHS, there has been a long debate about what types of eye surgery should be covered. In the United States, for example, health insurance has not historically covered cosmetic eye procedures like laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK), but some insurance providers are beginning to offer partial help with this surgery to improve refractive errors like nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. In the long term, this can save the insurance company money since they aren’t paying for the ongoing cost of glasses or contact lenses.

Despite this movement, most insurance providers still consider LASIK a cosmetic, voluntary procedure. Glasses or contact lenses are viewed as medically necessary.

The NHS states that they cover some types of laser surgery, if these are medically necessary. Conditions that are treated successfully with other methods, like refractive errors, are not covered. You may get some private vision insurance or find other ways to pay for LASIK in the U.K. though.

Some Types of Laser Eye Surgery Are Covered by the NHS

There are many vision conditions that benefit from laser eye surgery, but some chronic eye diseases need laser surgery to reduce symptoms, slow progression, and help you maintain your vision for longer. Laser surgery treatment options are covered by the NHS for certain eye conditions.

  • Diabetic retinopathy is caused by uncontrolled high blood sugar, which damages blood vessels. This can send blood into the vitreous humor and retina of your eye.

    Laser surgery removes these blood vessels (or new, fragile blood vessels) from in and around your retina. This slows the progression of retinal damage that leads to central vision loss.

  • Wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) also involves blood vessels growing in and around your retina, causing damage to the macula, the central part of the retina that is most involved in central vision. Wet AMD, like diabetic retinopathy, involves these blood vessels leaking blood into the retina and the vitreous humor. Laser surgery destroys these blood vessels.
  • Some diseases of the cornea, like corneal erosions, benefit from laser surgery reshaping this clear area on the surface of your eye.
  • After cataract surgery, when the artificial lens is in place in the lens capsule, a type of laser surgery can thicken the tissue in this area to keep the artificial lens safe.

Since these procedures are all related to preventing blindness, and they are considered necessary components of treating these chronic conditions, the NHS will cover these types of laser surgery.

LASIK & Similar Refractive Surgeries Are Not Covered by the NHS

LASIK is a type of eye surgery that reshapes the cornea to improve your visual acuity to at least 20/40. Millions of people around the world have undergone LASIK and related refractive surgeries using laser devices, and about 90 percent of people achieve 20/20 vision after the operation. People who have received LASIK may spend years a need for glasses or contact lenses, so they do not have to buy corrective wear for their eyes.

In the U.S., LASIK is expensive, but there are ways to offset the set. You can sometimes apply your health care savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) funds to the procedure, allowing you to allocate pre-tax money toward the overall cost.

In the United Kingdom, the NHS will not cover LASIK. The government health service has determined that glasses and contact lenses can manage refractive errors in a safe, easy-to-manage way for the majority of U.K. residents.

If you want LASIK in the U.K., you must visit a private clinic. The NHS has some trusts that manage LASIK clinics, or you can find one yourself.

How to Get LASIK in the United Kingdom

laser eye surgery

If you live in the U.K. and you are interested in a LASIK procedure, you must start with an overall eye exam at the clinic. This typically costs £150 just for the exam, but this amount will be applied as a credit to the cost of your LASIK procedure.

Some clinics require a deposit. For example, one requires a £500 deposit, while others require deposits amounting to 10 percent of your total cost. Cost per eye varies greatly, as it can in the U.S., with the lowest reported 2019 cost being £1,495 per eye and the highest being £3,250 per eye. With the average cost being about £2,000 per eye in the U.K., you will spend more on laser eye surgery in the British Isles than you will in the United States, on average

Many clinics offer financing options, so you can pay back the costs slowly over time. You may also consider saving for the procedure for a year or two while you search for a great clinic.

After LASIK, be sure your regular optometrist or ophthalmologist is informed of your vision changes. They can watch for any side effects like dry eye or inflammation, monitoring that these go away on their own. In rare cases, you may need glasses or contact lenses after undergoing LASIK, typically for help seeing long distances while driving or to perform specific up-close tasks, like reading or working on a computer for several hours.

 

References

NHS Services. National Health Service (NHS.co.uk).

Can I Get Laser Eye Surgery on the NHS? (April 2017). NHS.

What Conditions and Treatments Aren’t Covered on the NHS and How Much Do They Cost? (May 2018). The Telegraph.

What Is Diabetic Retinopathy? (October 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

What Is Macular Degeneration? (May 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

LASIK. (March 2018). United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

How to Use Your FSA and HSA for LASIK Surgery: 2019 Update. (December 2015). American Refractive Surgery Council (ARSC).

Typical LASIK Eye Surgery Costs in UK Clinics. (November 2019). Laser Eye Surgery Hub UK.

Health Insurance and Refractive or Laser Eye Surgery. WebMD.

Laser Eye Surgery and Lens Surgery. (June 2017). NHS.

How to Cut the Costs of Glasses, Contacts and Laser Eye Surgery. (August 2008). Independent.

Seven Things No One Tells You Before You Get Laser Eye Surgery. (September 2018). The Telegraph.