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Cancer patients in Scotland 'have an inferior NHS'

Scotland offers "an inferior health service" for cancer sufferers and risks losing its world-class status for biomedical research, according to specialists.

The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre
The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre

Cancer centres are struggling to recruit qualified staff and risk losing the clinicians they have to centres elsewhere in the UK because they do not offer training with the most up-to-date drugs, MSPs heard.

Holyrood's Health and Sport Committee heard from a range of cancer specialists on the problems they have accessing drugs in Scotland.

The system used to prescribe drugs that have not been approved for general use is "an invidious machine" designed to protect budgets and ensure doctors do not gain access to the drugs they have requested, it was claimed.

MSPs heard that the Individual Patient Treatment Requests (IPTR) system is an "inequitable process" that favours less clinically appropriate young middle-class articulate applicants over more suitable vulnerable people who cannot speak up for themselves.

Cancer specialists challenged the perception that cancer drugs are "big bad evil and very expensive", saying that the Scottish Government spends more money on mental health, cardiovascular treatment and cholesterol problems.

They have called on Scotland's politicians to be "honest" with patients and tell them they are prioritising other areas over cancer drugs, amid claims that some MSPs are telling patients that the doctors are to blame for the lack of access.

But the committee was also warned that NHS Scotland is in financial trouble and that this would be exacerbated if the Government asks the "imperfect" Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) to apply less scrutiny to the cost of drugs.

Some specialists advocated a cancer drugs fund similar to the rest of the UK, but MSPs heard that this could also lead to more "postcode prescribing".

NHS Scotland was also encouraged to enter private deals with drugs companies to get discounted drugs without setting a precedent that could lead to health services elsewhere in the world demanding similar cut-price deals.

Dr Stephen Harrow, consultant oncologist at Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, said patients challenge him about why he will not prescribe drugs available in England.

"That puts me in a very invidious position," he said.

"I'm working in quite a deprived area in the west of Scotland and I'm basically telling patients that there are more drugs that are not available than drugs that they can access. But when they went to speak to their MSP about this, the MSP squarely put the responsibility on myself to apply for these drugs through the IPTR process.

"I'm not able to access these drugs through IPTR because they have been turned down by SMC, but the feedback from the MSP was that it was my responsibility to access these drugs through IPTR. I've never been successful in accessing these drugs through IPTR and, given the legislation, the way that it's written, I will never be able to access these drugs.

"The drug companies are very much looking at us now as being quite an inferior health service."

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