In the last few days, much has been said in the media about the high cost of cancer treatments. This follows a paper published in the Lancet – Delivering affordable cancer care in high-income countries – written by health professionals, academics and our industry.


Some media outlets chose to focus on particular aspects of the report without providing sufficient context and in the end, the publication was represented as saying that patients with terminal cancer should not be given life-saving medicines.

Of course, this was not the message at all, and in fact, the purpose of the Lancet article was to start a debate on the complex issue of the affordability of cancer treatments. This is not a discussion about whether doctors should withhold treatments to terminally ill people. But rather one about how we can deliver reasonably priced cancer care to all people, in light of an ageing population, the rapid development of new treatments and the increasing costs of healthcare.

While I welcome the balanced debate in the Lancet paper, some of the things implied in the media this week have been misleading. I think it is important that I respond to two of the issues raised.

Firstly, we shouldn’t dismiss the extra time that medicines can give to terminally ill patients. It is very important to remember that different people react in different ways to treatment, and medicines can actually add many years to a person’s life even when the expectation is that it will only lengthen life expectancy slightly. In future, personalised healthcare will help us determine those patients who are most likely to respond to treatment. This will allow doctors to concentrate on those who would benefit from a medicine while sparing those for whom a treatment would prove ineffective.

Secondly, the cost of cancer medicines has been called in to question. I think context is important here. Cancer survival rates in the UK still do not compare favourably with many of our European neighbours. We currently lag behind comparable countries in Europe on our use of newer cancer treatments. In fact, the use of new cancer medicines is 33 per cent lower in the UK compared with the EU 15. And to address the point on cost directly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the proportion of the NHS budget spent on medicines has fallen since 1999 – down from 13 per cent to a little under 10 per cent today. Also, many of the most common medicines are coming off patent allowing generic manufacturers to provide them at a lower price and ultimately saving the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds.

These issues will no-doubt arise in the months to come as the Government faces continued funding pressures. I will be relaying these same messages to all our stakeholders when they do.

Stephen Whitehead, CEO of the ABPI

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