Charities Win Fight For New Cancer Plan

Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, will confirm the place of cancer at the top of the government’s health agenda by acceding to the demands of campaigners for a second cancer plan. At the Britain Against Cancer conference in London today, she will acknowledge that the original cancer plan, launched in 2000, needs updating. Cancer charities have been lobbying for a new plan for some time. The biggest of them, Cancer Research UK, took a petition with 250,000 signatures to Downing Street last week.

While all charities agree that the first cancer plan has succeeded in reducing waiting lists and improving access to services, they say there are big issues that need to be addressed. Yesterday the government said it had met its 31-day target for time from diagnosis to treatment for all cancers and 62 days from GP referral to treatment.

Alex Markham, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, told the Guardian that there were three main demands. Firstly, the plan must take account of the projected doubling in 15 years of people over 65, which will increase the number of cancer cases. Secondly, the issue of expensive medicines and screening techniques must be addressed, and thirdly, the impact of constant change in the structure of the NHS on patients must be assessed.

He acknowledged that the cost to the NHS of the torrent of expensive new drugs, such as Herceptin, was going to pose problems that would not be easily solved. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), which is charged with making cost-effectiveness decisions about medicines, had become an “Aunt Sally”, taking criticism whenever it refused a drug.

“This needs national debate about what value we place on increasing someone’s survival by a year. That requires some very open discussion. Also, how do we decide what a drug company is allowed to charge for a particular medicine?” he said.

While the government is unlikely to want to face head-on the discussion over the cost of lives and medicines, Ms Hewitt is expected to endorse the campaigners’ calls for patient choice to be at the heart of the revamped plan.

Patient choice has been a rallying cry for the department, but has been less of a priority within cancer services, where the initial thrust was to get waiting times down and increase the speed with which patients were diagnosed and treated.

Macmillan, another cancer charity, said a fresh focus on the experiences and needs of patients was required. Cancer patients now expect to be involved in decisions surrounding their care and treatment, it said.