There are stark inequalities in patient access to cancer treatment across Europe, a report reveals.
The UK has been criticised as being slow to approve new cancer drugs
While Austrian, Spanish and Swiss patients have access to new life-saving drugs quickly, those in other countries like the UK face long waits, it says.
The pan-European comparison by the Karolinska Institute looked at 19 countries, representing almost 75% of Europe's population.
The authors called for policy change and bigger budgets to ensure equity.
They pointed out that only 5% of Europe's total healthcare expenditure goes on cancer, despite the disease being the second most common killer after cardiovascular disease, claiming 1.2 million lives in 2002 alone.
And of this cancer budget, only 10% is spent on cancer drugs.
This means many patients wait too long or never get the drugs that they need, argue the researchers.
Co-author Dr Nils Wilking said: "Patients have to wait too long to obtain the benefits of newer therapies and the biggest hurdle to the uptake of new drugs is the proactive allocation of financial resources and budget in the healthcare system by policy and decision makers."
The European countries differ in the way that they decide which new cancer drugs should be made available and to whom.
"We need to ask why it is that some major therapeutic breakthroughs take so long before they reach patients and why the uptake of new innovative cancer drugs varies from country to country," said the report authors.
The UK's drug appraisals body, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), has been heavily criticised by a number of charities for the length of time it takes for the body to recommend treatment for NHS use after they have been given a licence.
NICE has said it wants to speed up the process. It has already pledged to fast track its assessment of the wider use of the breast cancer drug Herceptin.
The report authors recommended:
- Have a centralised procedure to cut review time for marketing authorisation of new cancer drugs
- Ensure drugs are available at the national level within 180 days of EU authorisation
- Ensure economic evaluations and health technology assessments, such as those done by NICE, are done quickly
- Ensure funding for new drugs is available on a proactive rather than reactive basis
Professor Mike Richards, National Clinical Director for Cancer in the UK said: "We are well aware that there are unacceptable delays in patients having access to cancer drugs which is why we are urgently looking at ways to speed up the NICE appraisal process.
"We do not in any way block use of drugs awaiting a NICE appraisal and have made it clear to the NHS that it should not withhold funding for treatments because NICE guidance is not available.
"Ways of strengthening this message are being explored."
Andrew Dillon, chief executive of NICE said: "We have listened to what patients and healthcare professionals have told us about the need for timely advice on the use of new medicines, particularly for life-threatening conditions such as cancer.
"We have responded by proposing a new, streamlined process for single drugs, and we think these proposals can make a real difference."
CancerBACUP called for more financial investment in cancer care.
Its chief executive Joanne Rule said: "This report shows that the UK lags behind when it comes to cancer survival rates, spending on cancer drugs and access to new cancer treatments.
"If the government wants the UK to catch up with Europe in terms of cancer care then we need a new Cancer Plan with new money tracked to make sure it gets through to front-line cancer services.
"New treatments are life and death issues for cancer patients. We must see a commitment to new money for cancer without delay."