Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Friday, 26 December 2008

NHS to get quicker drug approval

Medication
More life-extending drugs will become available for terminally ill patients

Drugs could be available from the NHS sooner after an advisory body said it would give guidance more quickly on which medicines should be provided.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) will also be more flexible in its approach to approving life-extending drugs.

Chairman Sir Michael Rawlins told the BBC that guidance would be given within six months of drugs going to market.

He accepted criticism that this process can currently take too long.

Ministers said in June they wanted procedures to be speeded up.

"Our ambition is to make sure guidance is available within three to six months," Sir Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He said this could be achieved by increasing the number of advisory committees and starting the evaluation process a year before a drug company expects to obtain a licence.

Value for money

However, Sir Michael warned it could take up to 18 months before these procedures were in place.

The aim of Nice is to standardise access to healthcare across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the equivalent role is undertaken by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC).

Nice assesses drugs in terms of clinical effectiveness and value for money, before making a recommendation.

Sir Michael said guidance to be published on 2 January 2009 would set out a new approach to offering drugs to terminally-ill patients.

"People attach a special importance to extending the lives of [those with] mortal illnesses, even for a few months, and we appreciate these extra weeks and months can be very special.

"We are proposing to provide our advisory bodies with supplementary advice... which will have the effect of extending the threshold range of what we would normally regard as cost-effective."

However, Sir Michael said this would only apply to all treatments for less common diseases.

"We are not proposing to extend this to all conditions. Frankly, it would cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds."

Pharmaceutical companies, he said, could be expected to lower the cost of drugs for more common conditions because they would get greater returns from the larger pool of patients.

Postcode lottery

"We are concentrating on less common conditions because the development costs are about the same," Sir Michael added.

The NHS is legally obliged to fund medicines and treatments Nice recommends. However, trusts in some areas choose to fund drugs it does not recommend, which can lead to accusations of a postcode lottery for certain medicines.

High-profile examples include the sight-saving drug Lucentis, an injection which treats wet age-related macular degeneration.

Its cost - 10,000 per eye - initially prompted Nice to say it should only be used when someone has gone blind in one eye.

This led to varying availability across the country and the subsequent protests eventually prompted Nice to relent.

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SEE ALSO
Lucentis: An NHS dilemma
27 Aug 08 |  Health
Woman 'denied sight-save drugs'
11 Mar 08 |  London

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