Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Thursday, 3 June 2010 16:02 UK

Cancer fund cash 'will run out'

By Simon Cox
BBC Radio 4's The Report

An assortment of pills
The government's cancer fund has promised 200m for drugs

Making more cancer drugs available could cost far more than government estimates according to a BBC investigation.

The government has allowed for a £200m cancer drug fund to pay for more cancer treatments from next year.

But the cost could rise to £600m based on figures from drug manufacturers and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).

The higher figure covers drugs turned down by NICE in the past five years.

Prof Chris McCabe, of the University of Leeds, said the cancer fund, which is due to start in April 2011, would not meet the need for access to cancer drugs.

"If you think about the cost of some drugs being £20,000 to £40,000 per patient for a year, you can get through £200m very quickly," he told Radio 4's The Report.

"It is going to be worse than it was before, because patients will believe the government has said they can have any cancer drug the doctor thinks they need and very quickly you will have patients being told by their doctor, 'Well I think you need it but that fund has run out," he added.

'NICE figures'

The BBC's figures were calculated using the prospective cost per patient of cancer drugs rejected by NICE over the past five years.

The number of patients was based on clinical criteria for prescribing the drugs from both NICE and the drug manufacturers.

More money for cancer, means less money for motor neurone disease. More money for cancer means less to treat patients who have got Alzheimer's
Prof Alan Maynard, University of York

Health economist Professor Alan Maynard said he was concerned about the push for more cancer drugs.

"You are undermining NICE and all the work it does to target resources where we get the biggest health gain, the bang for the buck. And this drives a horse and cart through logical and systematic rationing of health care resources," he said.

Prof Maynard said he was worried that the cancer fund will see cancer being given preference over other conditions because a combination of drugs companies, patients and campaigners has put the government under pressure.

"More money for cancer, means less money for motor neurone disease. More money for cancer means less to treat patients who have got Alzheimer's."

He said many of the cancer drugs were portrayed as wonder drugs when they only extend a patient's life by three to four months.

"The pharmaceutical companies' PR has been first class."

'Distorted relationship'

Haematologist Professor Adrian Newland, chair of the London New Cancer Drugs Group, said he was also concerned that the pressure for cancer drugs will affect the relationship between doctors and patients.

"It will distort the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of being honest with a patient and about their prognosis, it will be easier to say: 'I've got this drug. Let's try it, when there could have been other cheaper treatments which would have a similar effect," he said.

No government minister or official would be interviewed by the BBC but in a statement the Department of Health later challenged the BBC's findings:

"We do not recognise the figure of £600 million, and it would be interesting to see how it was calculated. If the figure assumes that all patients choose drug treatment over other forms of treatment such as radiotherapy or surgery, then it will be a significant overestimate.

"We will be publishing our detailed plans for a cancer drugs fund later in the year, alongside an impact assessment. The cancer drugs fund is a transitional arrangement as we move towards a value-based pricing scheme for drug treatments for all conditions."

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 3 June at 2000 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.

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