AT A GLANCE: UK cancer services to catch up with rest of world

What is going on? Health secretary Alan Johnson last week announced the Department of Health’s Cancer Reform Strategy. It follows on from the NHS Cancer Plan issued in 2000. This new model aims to make NHS cancer services ‘among the best in the world’ by 2012.

Where will the smart PR money be? Expect government comms resources to continue to go into smoking cessation and anti-obesity work – smoking is still the largest preventable risk factor for cancer. Excessive alcohol consumption is strongly linked to an increased risk of several cancers, so there will be a programme of activity in 2008 on improving the public’s knowledge of units of alcohol.

What else? The Government will expand the Sunsmart campaign, aimed at changing behaviour to prevent skin cancer. Meanwhile, it has pledged that patients will have fast access to high quality treatment including surgery, radiotherapy and drugs.

But hasn’t the efficacy of drugs been questioned? That’s right. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s The Investigation, cancer specialist Dr Peter Kirkbride said that money could be better spent on other things. He spoke of the £100m NHS spend on Roche’s breast cancer drug Herceptin in 2006, giving it to around 5,000 patients. Kirkbride thought it only made a difference to about 500 of those patients – around £200,000 per patient.

So the drugs don’t work? They do work, but Kirkbride says half of cancers are cured by surgery, 40 per cent by radiotherapy and only ten per cent by drugs – so budgets could usefully be diverted away from the latter, benefiting ‘about 30,000 patients for the same amount of money’, he said.

How did Roche’s PR team respond? Roche issued a statement rebutting the idea, saying that Herceptin had been endorsed as clinically effective and value for money by NICE and its Scottish equivalent the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

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