David Cameron’s flagship Cancer Drugs Fund was a “quick-fix” election promise that wasted more than a £1 billion and left dying patients in agony, a review has found.
Just one in five of the medicines offered by the now reformed scheme was capable of benefiting recipients, cancer experts revealed on Thursday, branding the initiative a “political failure across the board”.
Set up in 2010, the fund was designed to pay for treatments that had failed the standard NHS cost-benefit criteria.
It was easy to present this as a major win for the NHS
Professor Richard Sullivan, King's College London
Pledging to spend £200 million, Mr Cameron said the fund would help to bring British survival rates in line with the best in Europe.
But a major analysis by King’s College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that less than half of the drugs provided by the fund had undergone adequate clinical trials before being used, and the average median life extension they afforded was just 3.2 months.
The study also pointed to evidence suggesting the medicines were too toxic for some patients, forcing them to abandon treatment.
Professor Richard Sullivan, Director of the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s, said the performance of the fund, which cost £1.27 billion over six years, demonstrated the folly of announcing policy “on the hoof”.
“It was easy to present this as a major win for the NHS by saying 'look at all these additional patients who are going to have access to drugs'," he said.
“But it was not a properly thought-out policy.
“People became politically and intellectually lazy, but the money kept flowing.”
Last summer the cancer drugs fund was drastically pared back and placed under the control of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and its strict value-for-money rules.
Professor Sullivan said the fund had been unfair to non-cancer NHS patients, all of whose treatments are regulated by NICE, and a “significant waste of money”.
He also blamed cancer charities, as well as fellow academics, for failing to scrutinise the alleged benefits of the fund.
Published in the journal Annals of Oncology, the study found that once toxic side-effects were taken into account, the majority of the drugs “failed to show any evidence of a meaningful clinical benefit”.
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “The old Cancer Drugs Fund was always just a sticking plaster and we welcomed its overhaul because it was too expensive, unsustainable and provided little certainty to patients and their doctors.
"The new, more evidence-based system, where NICE appraises all cancer drugs, should address some of the issues highlighted in this study.
“But while we support the rigorous drug evaluation that NICE carries out, it’s essential that the new system continues to offer fast access to the most innovative and exciting cancer drugs.”
He called on NICE to reform its evaluation procedures to favour the most innovative drugs, even if they are expensive.
Approximately 356,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year, with more than 160,000 deaths caused by the disease, according to Cancer Research UK. Experts have said that the growth in personalised cancer treatments means cancer drugs are likely to get more expensive.
A spokesman for the Conservatives said: “The Cancer Drugs Fund is a policy that has given more than 100,000 people access to the latest drugs, meaning the chance of precious extra time with their families.”