Most people have their first contact with the National Health Service through their general practitioner (GP) - sometimes called a family doctor. GPs usually work together in small groups, forming local "practices" which serve a particular neighbourhood or area. Every UK citizen has a right to be registered with a GP. Consultations are free.
GPs are just one part of the front line of the National Health Service which deals with most people's everyday health needs - the part of the NHS often called "primary care". Many other health professionals work as part of this front line team. Nurses, health visitors, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists and a range of specialist therapists can all be an important first point of call for patients - in some cases working alongside family doctors in local GP practices, in other cases from local practices of their own. Together they provide a service which plays an important part in promoting health and keeping people well in addition to treating people when they are sick.
Services offered by GP practices are free to patients - although there are flat charges for prescriptions for a minority of patients. Children, elderly people and those on low income receive prescriptions free. Likewise some patients pay out of pocket charges for some of the services offered by dentists and optometrists - for example for eye tests or dental check-ups - with similar exemptions for older people, children and those on low incomes.
Doctors, nurses and the other professionals working in primary care also have a wider role in meeting the health needs of local people. Working with health authorities, they help to plan the full range of health services needed by local people and help decide how best such services should be provided. This role will evolve over the next few years, with doctors and nurses in primary care taking on more responsibility for helping to shape the overall pattern of local health services.