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The majority of new-qualified nurses and midwives go on to work in the NHS, but thanks to the changing employment landscape there are now more opportunities than ever to work in the private healthcare sector. If you’re considering which is right for you, our handy guide may help.

The numbers

The NHS Confederation reported that the organisation employed 377,191 qualified nursing staff in 2014* – unsurprisingly making it by far the biggest employer in the sector. Around 175,000 of these nurses are working in hospitals, with most of the remainder working in the community.

By contrast the independent sector employs more than 100,000 nurses – but this number is increasing as more tendering of work to private providers takes place within the NHS system.

Choose your field first

Before we look at the pros and cons of NHS vs independent sectors, it might be that you’re steered one way or the other by your chosen field of nursing.

For example, if you crave the challenge and excitement of working as an accident and emergency nurse, then you’ll be looking for a job with the NHS. Whereas if you are drawn to a career as a care home nurse, you’ll definitely need to consider the independent sector.

Student nurses choose whether to study nursing related to adults, children, mental health patients or people with learning disabilities while still in training – and this choice can influence whether you’re more likely to go into the public or private sector.

Anyone specialising in paediatric nursing will find the majority of roles are still in the NHS, whereas those studying mental health or learning disabilities nursing will likely have a choice of acute or longer-term care roles in the NHS – or long-term care jobs in the independent sector.

In contrast, studying adult nursing will give you a much wider choice of independent sector roles.

Cast aside those clichés

There may be a perception that most nursing in the independent sector involves working in expensive private hospitals with plush carpets and gourmet food – and similarly that public sector nurses are all bravely battling away in underfunded NHS hospitals.

In reality the independent sector is comprised of a wide range of working environments – from care homes and hospices to oil rigs – and of course some fancy hospitals.

At a basic level, the sector can be divided into for-profit care providers (such as private hospitals and insurers) and not-for-profit ones (such as charities, hospices etc.).

The public sector isn’t just the NHS either. It covers the thousands of nurses who work in the three armed forces, school nurses – and many of those working in prisons and young offender institutes.

Nurses are also playing an increasingly significant role in primary care provision in the NHS with the advent of the nursing practitioner – assessing patients and carrying out certain procedures in GP surgeries.

Pay rates

The received wisdom is that the NHS will offer you a better pension and job security than the private sector. However, with radical changes happening in the NHS and the wider economy, the pension situation for public sector nurses now looks less copper-bottomed than it has in the past.