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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Cancer drugs usage 'sees boost'
Herceptin has seen a boost in usage
More patients are getting cancer drugs in England, according to a report by the government's cancer tsar.

National Cancer Director Professor Mike Richards also claimed the "postcode lottery effect" was diminishing.

However, he warned there was still work to be done to improve cancer care and treatment within the NHS.

The survey was prompted after a 2004 investigation by Professor Richards found "unacceptably high variations" in access to cancer drugs.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence, NICE, the NHS drugs watchdog, has been criticised in the past by charities and drug companies for failing to ensure that new cancer drugs were distributed widely and evenly.

I am reassured to see that a positive NICE appraisal leads to increased and more consistent use of these drugs
Professor Richards

The latest report tracked cancer drug use during the first half of 2005. Professor Richards said there had been an average increase of 47% in cancer drug use in the last 18 months.

The use of breast cancer drug Herceptin, also known as trastuzumab, saw an increase of 55%.

Other drugs which showed a big increase in use were:

  • Mabthera (rituximab), used for lymphoma, which saw an increase of 87% in usage
  • Glivec (imatinib) used for chronic myeloid leukaemia rose by 70%

Other did not fare so well. Chemotherapy drug fludarabine prescriptions rose by just 11%.

The survey also found a more consistent use of these drugs around the country.

The 2004 report revealed some cancer networks were much more likely to use a particular cancer drug than another cancer network.

But the latest findings reveal some of these variations have lessened. For example, in 2004, some networks used Herceptin four times more than some other networks, but in the latest report this has fallen to a ratio of 3:1.

'More to do'

Professor Richards said: "I am reassured to see that a positive NICE appraisal leads to increased and more consistent use of these drugs around the country.

"There will always be some variation in drug usage across the country - this is to be expected given the different needs and choices of local communities and patients."

But Professor Richards also warned that the NHS had to continue ensuring quicker and better care for patients.

Health Minister Rosie Winterton welcomed the report. She said: "I am delighted that his report shows that considerable progress has been made.

"However that does not mean we will be complacent - we recognise that there is still more to do."

Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine at London's Imperial Colllege, said: "I think this report is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go and there are still huge problems.

"Cancer drugs are not completely equitable: there is still some siginificant postcode prescribing around.

"There are also huge delays in NICE making its decisions reagrading new drugs."

Joanne Rule, Cancerbackup Chief Executive, said: "Postcode prescribing is a life or death issue for patients.

"Sadly it is not uncommon for people to call our helpline saying that they have been refused a NICE approved treatment."

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "We must ensure future patients don't have to struggle for potentially life-saving treatment in the way some women with breast cancer have had to for access to Herceptin."

Q&A: What is NICE?
09 Aug 05 |  Health

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