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Health Minister John Denham
"You will see the lottery of postcodes prescribing being tackled"
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Monday, 1 May, 2000, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
'Postcode' health service attacked
New cancer treatments are not available throughout the country
Postcode prescribing in the NHS, where life-saving drugs are available in some areas but not others, has been condemned as "unacceptable" by a leading charity.

The Cancer Research Campaign has highlighted the way some patients have been forced to go to extraordinary lengths to be able to pay for a new cancer drug, Irinotecan, used to treat colorectal cancer, which is not widely available on the NHS.

If I see a patient who would benefit I have literally to write a begging letter to the patient's GP, to the local health authority trying to scrape together funding to treat them

David Kerr
Professor of Oncology
"People have even mortgaged their homes," said Kate Law, head of the clinical programmes team for the Cancer Research Campaign, said.

"If a family member is dying you are prepared to go to any lengths."

Colin Lea was diagnosed with bowel cancer after taking early retirement at the age of 49.

A first course of chemotherapy failed and he was told that Irinotecan might help his treatment.

But his health authority would not fund the drug.

"I could not understand morally how a health authority in this country could make a decision on whether a patient who failed first line treatment and has got an opportunity for further treatment that could continue his life could refuse that drug," Mr Lea said.

John Denham
John Denham: Postcode lottery is unacceptable
He went before the hospital board and begged to be given the chance to be treated with the new drug. They relented.

"Those people who haven't had the drug have had their lives cut short," Mr Lea said.

David Kerr, professor of oncology at Birmingham University, said Irinotecan is only moderately expensive.

"But there is very strong evidence from clinical trials showing that patients will benefit from it, they will live longer and live better," he said.

His hospital does not have circumscribed funding for the drug.

"If I see a patient who would benefit I have literally to write a begging letter to the patient's GP, to the local health authority, trying to scrape together funding to treat them."

Those people who haven't had the drug have had their lives cut short

Colin Lea
Cancer patient
The government established the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) a year ago to investigate the issue of drug postcoding and to decide which drugs should be made more available.

But irinotecan has yet to be referred to NICE by the government.

Health Minister John Denham said the lottery of care was an unacceptable part of the health service that had been allowed to develop over the last 20 years.

He said the NHS had often been far to slow to introduce new and effective treatments across the country.

"That is why NICE and the additional funding we are putting into the NHS is so important," he said, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It is the means we have of tackling such variations."

He said irinotecan was likely to be one of the cancer drugs referred to NICE.

"I think you will see the lottery of postcodes prescribing tackled and these unacceptable variations disappear," he said.

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See also:

11 Apr 00 | Health
Drug hope for cancer patients
14 Nov 99 | Health
NHS drug 'lottery' targeted
02 Sep 99 | Health
NHS rationing: The key areas
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