UK: Lord Saatchi's Innovation Bill Divides Healthcare Community

April 9, 2014
Guest Blogger

Pharmaceutical Executive

Few would argue with the desirability of innovation - something new, something that delivers value.

Few would argue with the desirability of innovation - something new, something that delivers value. And innovation in pharmaceuticals is a range from a more convenient way for patients to take a medicine, to treating a disease that couldn’t be treated before.

Pretty much everyone will agree that not only do they want innovation, and more of it, but identifying what stops or hinders innovation is where people’s opinions often diverge.

According to the UK’s Lord Saatchi, one of the problems for innovation in medicine (and surgery) is the legal framework - so-called ‘defensive medicine’. Doctors might not be innovating in treatment or surgery for fear of prosecution, he says. And his Medical Innovation Bill is underpinned by this view.

Lord Saatchi’s efforts are driven by the experience of his late wife, Josephine, who died aged 69 from ovarian cancer in 2011, one of the rarer cancers. And sadly, many of us with have had a similar experience (my own father passed away from a rare cancer aged just 64).

Will the Medical Innovation Bill help?
It seems quite a few people agree with Lord Saatchi that the legal framework needs tweaking. Supporters range from Lord Woolf, Former Master of the Roles and Lord Chief Justice, Angus Dalgleish, Professor of Oncology at the University of London and Principal of the Cancer Vaccine Institute, Charlie Chan of the Royal College of Surgeons to a host of Saatchi’s peers in the House of Lords. Even Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, has shown support.

And support from cancer patient groups is significant. Who can blame them? Especially those representing the rarer cancers, where research is lacking and the spotlight on rare cancers arising from the Bill will help them get their voice heard.

But not everyone is convinced. Some in the legal profession point out that doctors already have legal protection and some are concerned that the Bill could do more harm than good. Concerns of quackery abound (but are swiftly rejected by the Saatchi team). Others have also questioned the facts that have been bandied about to support the Bill, others say that there isn’t the evidence of successful prosecutions that you’d expect if the law was the problem.

And it’s not just the legal eagles who disagree, doctors like Professor John Radford from The Christie hospital that specializes in treating cancer and is one of the largest cancer centres in Europe, aren’t convinced either. Ben Goldacre has made his feelings known by tweeting that the Bill is “dire” and that “it’s misguided and will harm patients”. And you’ve got to wonder whether the likely considerable time and money spent on the campaign might have been better spent funding research?

Back in October the Government is reported to have said that such a Bill was not needed. Now it is willing to hear what the public thinks. All very social media friendly too. But the consultation themes are telling, the first is whether there is a problem. The final question could also provide a stark statistic once everyone’s response is in: “should the draft Bill become law?”

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) says that “it should encourage innovation”. Although quite how it will help industry with innovation isn’t clear: could it simply keep innovation in the public, patients, and clinicians mind? Could it mean more patients signing up to clinical trials? Could it mean more off label prescribing?

What happens next? The Department of Health’s consultation will end on the April 25, 2014. We’ll have to await the findings, but it could be a close run between the supporters and the detractors. What seems unknown though is how, if successful, the Bill could bring about the dynamism in innovation that is hoped for but the spotlight on how to get more innovation, whether for a rare cancer or a more common disease, can only be a good thing.

Leela Barham is an independent health economist. You can find out more about her at http://leelabarhameconomicconsulting.blogspot.co.uk and contact her at leels@btinternet.com