Government backs law offering untested drugs to terminally ill

Categories: Care.

The Medical Innovation Bill would offer some unlicensed drugs to people dying of cancer and make it easier for doctors to try out these new treatments without the fear of being sued.

The bill, proposed by Lord Saatchi, has received government support following an amendment which requires doctors to secure the agreement of another specialist in order to go ahead with the treatment.

The Department of Health has said it is “minded to support” the bill following the change.

A spokeswoman commented: “Innovation is at the heart of modernising the NHS and is essential for improving treatments and finding new cures and work on the Medical Innovation Bill is ongoing.

“We are pleased that Lord Saatchi has tabled amendments to the bill to help ensure patient and staff safety.”

The Ebola example

The Conservative peer, who has been campaigning on the issue since his wife died of ovarian cancer, told the Daily Telegraph that the principle of allowing new drugs to be tested on desperately ill people was already being applied in the case of Ebola victims in Africa.

He said: “In dealing with the deadly Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organisation has decided that departure from standard evidence-based treatment is fully justified and essential.

“It has set ethical guidelines for the use of new therapies and interventions – they are identical to the provisions of the Medical Innovation Bill.”

The bill has also received tentative support from the General Medical Council (GMC) and leading charity, Cancer Research UK.

Professor Sir Peter Rubin, the GMC’s chairman, said: “Medicine is a risky business. There are many people alive today because of the willingness of doctors to innovate, deal with uncertainty and take reasonable risks which are understood, shared with, and consented to, by the patient in accordance with good medical practice.

“While we welcome the amendments to the Bill in Lord Saatchi’s name, we look forward to seeing the final version.”

‘Exhausted other options’

Sarah Woolnough, Director of Policy and Information at Cancer Research UK added:

“We know that more could be done to promote innovation in cancer treatment, especially for patients with life-threatening conditions where there are few treatment options, and the Medical Innovation Bill aims to support clinicians to act innovatively where they have exhausted other options.

“The latest set of amendments laid on the Medical Innovation Bill are an improvement, requiring a doctor to seek advice from an appropriately qualified colleague before departing from standard treatment.

“We must ensure the Bill contains appropriate safeguards to protect patients. We will monitor the Bill’s progress closely and hope we will see a greater focus on innovation thanks to this bill.”

Uncontrolled experimentation

According to the Telegraph, despite the safeguarding measures, some doctors remain apprehensive:

“Never once have we encountered interference or obstruction due to fear of litigation,” said Michael Baum, Professor Emeritus of Surgery at University College London.

“There are of course many other obstacles to progress but changing the law with this bill is not going to accelerate innovation in cancer therapy, but might, as a result of unintended consequences, endanger our patients by uncontrolled experimentation,” he added.

The Medical Innovation Bill will be debated in the House of Lords on Friday (24 October) and is due to be considered by MPs in the House of Commons in December.

Are you a patient diagnosed with a terminal illness? And if so, would you be happy receive previously untested drugs? Or if you work in the palliative care sector, how would you feel about administering these medications? Get in touch with the editor and share your thoughts. 

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