17 Sep 2015

Astonishing omission: NHS spends £1bn on cancer drugs without checking if they are working

There is yet another blow for the Cancer Drug Fund today.   A National Audit Office report reveals that nearly £1bn has been spent on 74,000 cancer patients and yet no data has ever been collected to show whether the drugs have in fact extended their lives.

It seems an astonishing omission for a health service internationally renowned for its ability to collect patient data.

But it turns out that when the fund was set up by the Coalition Government in 2010, officials wrongly believed they could use existing methods for collating cancer data.

According to the NAO report this has made it impossible to evaluate the impact that the Fund has had on patient outcomes, such as survival.

Somewhat belatedly, NHS England and Public Health England signed a data sharing agreement in July so patients can be tracked but there are, as yet, no results from that.

The report also says that all parties agree that the Fund is not sustainable in its current form and NHS England is currently consulting on a new system for commissioning these drugs which are often used for terminally ill patients.

But a 35 per cent overspend of its budget forced NHS England to drop 16 drugs from its list in March followed by another 12 earlier this month.

The very existence of the fund is controversial.  It was seen to be stepping on the toes of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence which was set up to evaluate the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of new drugs.  And there was a query over why cancer should receive this unique funding while other conditions did not.

There are those in the medical profession, too, who believe that while some of these drugs may possibly extend a patient’s life, they are at the same time hugely toxic, meaning those extra days or months have little or no quality at all.

But overriding all this is what has happened to patient expectations.  First they are told that there is a fund that could mean access to drugs that could extend their lives, then their hopes are dashed because the treatment has fallen off the Fund’s list.

They are, in effect, caught between a pharmaceutical industry charging huge amounts, a Government that promised it would supply these cancer drugs, and an NHS that is severely cash-strapped.   It seems particularly cruel.

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