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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 November 2005, 11:29 GMT
Faster access to NHS drugs plan
Image of pills
The new system would speed up drug appraisal times
Patients should be able to get life-saving drugs - including cancer medicines - more quickly under a new fast-track checking system.

Under the proposals, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence will be able to assess key drugs within eight weeks.

It currently takes an average of 18 months for an appraisal.

NICE has acted after concerns patients were being denied treatments because it was taking too long to issue advice.

Docetaxel (Taxotere) for early breast cancer
Paclitaxel (Taxol) for early breast cancer
Rituximab (Mab Thera) for first-line non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
Bortezomib (Velcade) for multiple myeloma
Trastuzimab (Herceptin) for early breast cancer

The government said the new system would benefit thousands of patients.

NHS trusts are free to use treatments which have been licensed, even if they have not received NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) approval.

But in practice, hospital bosses are reluctant to give the go-ahead because of financial constraints.

Two tier system

Cancer drugs have been among the worst affected, with some taking three years to be given NICE approval.

We are also pleased to see three breast cancer drugs will form part of the initial fast-track process
Jeremy Hughes, Breakthrough Breast Cancer

NICE is carrying out a three-month consultation on the new proposals, but has already identified the first five drugs to be pushed through the new process.

Among them will be breast cancer treatment Herceptin, which has been at the centre of controversy because it is widely used on patients whose breast cancer is at an advanced stage but has yet to be approved for use on women in the early stages of the illness.

Two other breast cancer drugs, one for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and another for multiple myeloma will also be fast-tracked. The first guidance is expected in June next year.

Only certain life-saving drugs will be fast-tracked, with the rest being assessed under the current system.

NICE, which assess drugs on clinical and cost effectiveness, is able to speed up the process by proposing to start the appraisal during the licensing stage.

NICE chief executive Andrew Dillon said: "The proposals we have set out mean NICE can deal with the current backlog much quicker than planned and that we will be able to issue guidance to the NHS rapidly in the future, once a drug is licensed."

'Bold reforms'

Health Minister Jane Kennedy added: "The new guidance will benefit many thousands of patients, especially those with life-threatening conditions and will provide greater certainty about the provision of important new treatments."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Steve Webb, said: "With more and more new drugs being developed, NICE is being asked to do more work.

"Meanwhile its funding has actually been cut by this government. Ministers must guarantee that NICE will have the cash to implement this new faster process."

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley added while the move was welcome, it would do nothing to "address the key issue of postcode lotteries".

"Unless financial problems are resolved the benefits of life-saving drugs will be limited."

Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "On behalf of all breast cancer patients, who have helped to bring about this reform by campaigning to make Herceptin available, we broadly welcome this announcement.

"We are also pleased to see three breast cancer drugs will form part of the initial fast-track process, which will help benefit thousands of women with breast cancer."

Joanne Rule, Chief Executive of CancerBACUP, said: "These proposals represent a bold reform package for the future, but they don't solve the problem of the backlog of new cancer treatments currently held up at NICE.

NICE should issue interim guidance on cancer treatments already approved for use in Scotland, and it's crucial that the government make it crystal clear that doctors can prescribe licensed cancer drugs now.

"Until NICE issues guidance there will be post-code prescribing, but we cannot accept no prescribing of new cancer treatments."

Hear one cancer patient's reaction to the news

Patients 'missing out on drugs'
20 Sep 05 |  Health
Q&A: What is NICE?
09 Aug 05 |  Health

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