The British National Health Service provides medical services to all, either free or for a small fee. The treatments that are available free of charge differ from one county to another, but in most places, prescription drugs are subsidized for people over 65, children under 16, pregnant women and those with low incomes. Dental care and glasses are also provided for a small fee. Today, because the English population is aging, the National Health Service is facing increasing demands for services and treatment.

Private medical care is also available. About 13% of the population pays for private medical care through medical insurance plans. Private medical facilities are usually more up-to-date than public services and there is not such a long wait for treatment.

Family doctors provide general health care, including checkups, vaccinations and counselling. Midwives may deliver babies, unless there are complications that require the attendance of a doctor. Many English people seek out alternative health practices like homeopathy, massage, reflexology and acupuncture.

Over the course of the 20th century, life expectancy for English people and others in Britain has increased from 49 to 74 years for men and from 52 to 79 years for women. This improvement was the result of better nutrition, universal education, higher living standards, decreased air pollution in certain areas, more and better medical care and the trend toward smaller families. However, problems remain. Cigarette smoking is the major cause of preventable illness and death. Heart disease, stroke and cancer are the leading causes of death.

English research and innovations in medicine and biology have had a wide impact on health care throughout the world. In 1865, the English surgeon Joseph Lister pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery. Before Lister, the importance of cleanliness and sterile instruments was not fully appreciated. In 1953, research scientist Francis Crick, working with an American scientist, James Watson, helped determine the double-helix structure of DNA, the substance that carries genetic information. Both won Nobel Prizes in 1962 for their work.

   Did you know?
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was the founder of modern nursing. In 1854, when English troops were fighting in the Crimean War, she organized a unit of nurses to work in a military hospital. By insisting upon cleanliness and sanitation, she reduced the hospital's death rate from 42% to 2%. In 1860, she founded a nursing school in London.