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UK uptake of new medicines 'about right' say doctors

Published on 07/12/06 at 04:45pm

Most UK doctors think the uptake of new medicines in the country is 'about right' according to a new survey - despite the UK having the slowest uptake of new drugs in Europe.

The poll suggests that even after a year of campaigning for faster access to new treatments by pharma companies, patient groups and some sections of the media, most doctors remain convinced their conservative approach to prescribing is justified.The results are bad news for the UK industry, which needs doctors to demand faster use of new medicines if Britain is to catch up with the prescribing habits of comparable countries.

The UK spends less of its prescribing budget on medicines launched in the last five years than France, Germany, Spain or Italy, yet the survey showed that 58% of doctors thought the UKs uptake was 'about right'.

The findings come from a specially commissioned online survey, conducted by Medix-UK for Pharmafocus, of 1,029 general practitioners and hospital doctors of all specialties.

Pharmafocus medical editor Dr Stephen Head said: "From my perspective as a GP, you get quite a small number of patients who don't respond to conventional treatments and for whom new novel products might be useful.

"Areas like asthma and hypertension spring to mind, where there are some people whose symptoms are just not controlled by current therapies, but the vast majority are just fine."

Despite this prevailing view, a substantial proportion surveyed  nearly one in three  did feel uptake of new medicines was too slow. It is these doctors, either in primary or secondary care, who may find themselves blocked from prescribing new drugs by their PCT decision-makers.

Commenting on the results, a PCT prescribing advisor in England told Pharmafocus:"It's very difficult to gauge what is the right level of uptake for new medicines.

"Personally, I would recommend clinicians approach absolutely any new drug cautiously," he said, adding there was no clear indication that lower use of new drugs was good or bad for UK patients.

Yet on the subject of this year's headlines about patients being denied cancer drugs, he acknowledged some new treatments offered awe-inspiring, advances in care, and said PCTs would have to bow to political pressure to find funding.

Meanwhile, hope that an agreement might emerge this year between the government and industry on faster uptake appears to have been premature. In February this year, ABPI Director General Richard Barker told Pharmafocus he hoped to have reached some conclusion on this [issue] by the end of the year via the joint Ministerial Industry Strategy Group.

But following their latest meeting in early November, the ABPI and the Department of Health said they expected no announcement to emerge from the talks.

Responding to the survey results, the ABPI's Richard Barker said: "I find it disappointing that so many doctors feel that it is acceptable for the UK to lag so far behind comparable countries in its uptake of new medicines.  

"On the other hand, the survey showed that over 30% of doctors agreed with us that it is not fair on patients to persist in prescribing out-of-date treatments when medical science has moved on."

He added that conservatism in the name of saving money would be a false premise. "Medicines with a lower price do not necessarily cost less in the long-run- a treatment that acts faster and more effectively is likely to save the NHS money as well as being of benefit to patients."

The ABPI says the uptake of new cancer medicines is a particular problem area, with 2005 spending running at two-thirds the levels of comparable European countries.

Moreover, it claims that cancer drug prescribing often shows little or no change following NICE approval

A recent report by think-tank The King's Fund said there was universal agreement that increasing numbers of new cancer drugs will require hard decisions to be made about funding and eligibility for treatment.

After having effectively overruled NICE over Herceptin in October 2005, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has resisted pressure from subsequent controversies surrounding Alzheimer's drugs and other cancer treatments such as Velcade and Tarceva.

The government looks set to support NICE in its new fast-track approach, and enforce its decisions more strictly on the NHS. Public pressure on the NHS is such that more funding for cancer drugs will be found, but with some areas, such as primary care prescribing likely to feel the pinch as a result.

The PCT prescribing advisor concluded:"It would be political suicide for a politician to step into the limelight and say the NHS is not going to fund a drug because of its cost.

"[That means] individual PCTs are going to feel this pressure, and the time is getting increasingly close when organisations are going to have to look at what they can stop doing, to free up resources to pay for things like Herceptin."

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