What happens when NICE says no? If NICE refuses to fund an expensive intervention to treat cancer, but the patient wishes it anyway, the patient must forgo all ‘free’ NHS care and pay for the intervention, plus all the rest of their care – ie be subsequently treated entirely as a private patient. Care then becomes very expensive.

There has been a lot of debate about this recently, with many arguing that this is wrong, and that patients should be allowed to pay for ‘top-up’ care for whatever additional treatments they may wish to have.

Freedom of choice is obviously desirable, but, as I’ve argued before, it has to be a meaningful choice. It is incredibly hard to look at newly generated evidence and to try and decide what it means for one as an individual. This becomes even harder when the data is 1) not free to access in its entirety 2) not yet peer reviewed (eg selected data being presented at a conference) 3) presented in ways where the best possible interpretation of the treatment is used (e.g. outcomes described as a reduction in relative risk rather than in absolute risk)  4) when the trial has been small scale and/or short term, which, among other things, may not be long enough or large enough for significant outcomes or adverse effects to be made apparent.

Moan as we do about the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), which decides which drugs should be available on the NHS, the idea that there should be a rationale about rationing has been received rather differently across the Atlantic.

In the US $2,000bn is spent annually on healthcare, but only 0.1% of this is actually used to assess whether any of the money was spent wisely, the BMJ reports this week. Two Democratic senators have introduced a bill, which has been generally welcomed, to establish a NICE-like institution to evaluate what the most effective healthcare interventions are. 

The responses to the piece below about NICE’s proposal not to fund new drugs for renal cancer are, in disagreement, understandable. But the problem is that rationing healthcare interventions is inevitable. Even if we (rightly) save money by stopping inappropriate prescribing and other ineffective interventions, there are still going to be limits and hard judgment calls to make. These decisions should be made openly and as fairly as possible.

Margaret McCartney’s Blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

A forum on healthcare policy and professional issues, by Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist Margaret McCartney.