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Getting the right medicines to patients at the right time is one of the biggest challenges for future healthcare. The Association for British Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (ABPI) document ‘2015 manifesto: our agenda for change’ calls for government to “redouble efforts to boost patients’ access to innovative medicines.” But how will the new Conservative government in the UK overcome the hurdles that delay patients being treated with innovative medicines?

A year ago in April, the coalition government supported the creation of the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS) through its Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The scheme aims to provide patients in the UK who have life threatening or seriously debilitating conditions the access to medicines that are not yet on the market and which address an unmet medical need.

Not only will the EMAS be able to speed up patient access to medicines up to one year earlier than at present, the scheme could be good for boosting the economy. As Steve Bates, CEO of the UK BioIndusty Association (BIA), explains “…this scheme can help to ensure the UK continues to be the ‘go to location’ where companies around the globe want to develop and bring to market their innovative therapies.”

Blue, red and yellow: what did the manifestos say?

Labour had talked of a Cancer Treatment Fund, worth £330m-a-year, to improve access to all forms of innovative cancer therapies, including advanced forms of surgery and radiotherapy. The liberal Democrats, promised to “Get the best for the NHS out of innovative medicines and treatments”, and focused heavily on mental health and social care in their manifesto. Of the three main political parties, however, it was only the Conservatives who underlined in their 2015 manifesto how they would specifically work to ensure patient access to medicines over the coming years: “We will speed up your access to new medicines by the implementing the findings of our Innovative Medicines and Medical Technology Review”, they wrote.

So now that the Conservatives are back in power, the country will be watching whether they will fulfil their promise of speeding up access to new medicines. The Innovative Medicines and Medical Technology review will make recommendations on how to get NHS patients quicker access to innovative medicines and medical technologies (including devices and diagnostics). In particular, it aims to improve how medicines are regulated and speed up how quickly the safety and efficacy of medicines can be assessed. The government wants the review to look into how the work of the EAMS can be strengthened to work alongside the National Health Service (NHS) and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – itself responsible for deciding which medicines are available on the NHS. David Cameron’s Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF), set up in 2015 to improve access to cancer drugs, is set to be continued until March 2016. However, many stakeholders hope that better appraisal process for cancer drugs through NICE will eliminate the need for the CDF in the future.

Robust decision making

The ABPI, who have stressed the importance of ensuring patient access to innovative medicines, have requested that the NICE’s decision-making framework is also amended so that it can make decisions on new medicines to benefit NHS patients. The ABPI has also called for a framework for NICE and NHS England to align with the ‘wider health goals of society’, such as the importance of helping those in greatest need and society’s willingness to pay more for medicines at the end of life and for rare conditions.

In addition, the ABPI request that in light of the pricing deal agreed with pharmaceutical industry (the new Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme means the biopharmaceutical industry has committed to keep NHS spending on branded medicines flat for two years and under 2% for a further three years), NHS activities which focus solely on cost containment of medicines should be ended, “with resources redeployed to optimise the use of medicines for patient health.”

The power of the public

The ABPI also emphasises that patients should know what treatments they are entitled to: they therefore recommend a ‘public awareness campaign on the NHS Constitution’.  The public themselves have strong views on the access to innovative medicines, as a recent poll commissioned by the ABPI has revealed.  The poll of 1,764 English adults showed that more than half (52%) believe that not enough of the NHS budget is being spent on medicines.

The poll also revealed that access to innovative treatments was a key issue for voters: a third (32%) of English adults said that a political promise to spend more on ensuring that people with serious or life-threatening illnesses could have the latest medicines would make them more likely to vote for a political party. Interestingly, the party with the clearest view on how they would increase access to innovative medicine won the election on the 7th of May. Now the eyes of the country are upon David Cameron and his colleagues as they act on their promise to make “…our country the best place in the world to design, develop and deploy these products.”

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The author

Ruth KnowlesRuth Knowles is a freelance science writer who has written articles and press releases on a range of life science and health topics. She received her MSc in Science Communication from the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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