Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 10:06 UK

'The NHS is a very precious thing'

Jane Dreaper
BBC Health Correspondent

Professor Sir Michael Rawlins
Sir Michael says there are still many unanswered questions in medicine

Next April, Professor Sir Michael Rawlins will hang up his hat as chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

His departure will come after ten years at the helm of one of the NHS's most controversial organisations.

NICE has often been criticised for taking too long to make decisions about which drugs should be funded by the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But Sir Michael says they have to wait for ministers at the Department of Health to refer things to them before we can look at a product.

"Sometimes, and I think ministers would accept this, in the past it's taken too long."

We need to encourage patients and give them the opportunity to take part. I've done many trials and people always want to help

NICE has about 40 appraisals in the pipeline. Some of these are drugs that have been around for a while - others aren't yet on the market.

Unanswered questions

Sir Michael says there are still many unanswered questions in medicine - some of these involving the interaction between common conditions and drugs.

He wants to see NHS hospitals devoting more time to clinical research trials.

This is a subject close to his heart as his 13-month-old grandson Alfie Gibson is taking part in the LEAP study at St Thomas' Hospital in London, which is looking at how children develop allergies.

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"There's no harm going to come to Alfie in taking part in this research," he says.

"I think when he's older he'll be proud he had the opportunity as a baby to help future generations of kids.

"We need to encourage patients and give them the opportunity to take part. I've done many trials and people always want to help.

"I've done trials on children with epilepsy, and also looked at the effectiveness of painkillers.

"I've even taken blood from myself. It's technically quite a difficult thing to do but I've done it - and wrecked some of my veins in the process."

Sir Michael has spent 42 years as an NHS doctor, with much of this time at hospitals in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He stopped practising in the NHS two years ago when he reached the age of 65.

He agrees that morale among doctors is low at the moment - and he's puzzled as to why this is.

He told me: "Doctors are unhappy. They're pretty well-paid and skilful. They have interesting and worthwhile jobs.

"Yet across the world there's unease and unhappiness. It's a multitude of things.

"The world has moved on since I was a young doctor. Doctors nowadays think they ought to have a life as well as work. Medicine's often incompatible with that, and I think that's part of the problem.

"I think I've been very fortunate to have been able to practise medicine in the National Health Service. I have never sent a bill to a patient - I wouldn't know how much to charge.

"A sociologist, Richard Titmuss, said the creation of the NHS was the most unsordid act of social policy during the 20th century. I like that. The NHS is a very precious thing."


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