New research has undermined one of the principal arguments against allowing cancer patients to top up their NHS care with private drug treatment.
This shows cancer patients stay well for longer with top-ups. The study, carried out by one of the country's top oncologists, shows patients who pay for drugs the NHS has refused to provide stay well for longer and so save the NHS money.
Critics of the controversial top-up scheme have claimed private treatment would cause extra side effects that the NHS would have to deal with.
The new research will add to pressure on the Health Secretary, who is due to rule by the end of the month on whether the official ban on top-ups should be lifted.
Professor Nick James, a consultant at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, analysed 80 patients being treated for kidney cancer; “We are basically saying we are opening the doors to huge inequities in access, with those patients who can afford it topping up privately for their healthcare whereas those who can't will have to do without. Half of these received standard drugs. The other half received newer expensive treatment rarely allowed on the NHS. Some had bought the expensive drugs themselves.”
Professor James found patients taking the newer drugs lived at least three times longer. And they cost three times less. The patients were so healthy they did not need as many hospital consultations; "The results were stark. The patients who self-paid were saving the NHS money compared to the ones who got sent for palliative care. So there is no evidence that self-paying patients were sequestering additional NHS resources to themselves."
The Department of Health says patients cannot mix private and NHS care. In most parts of the country NHS care is considered to start at diagnosis and continue until patients are cured, or they die. So patients who top up their care with private drugs face a bill for NHS treatment.
But after public exposure on television, many want to follow the lead of the small number of hospitals who get round the rules by claiming NHS care stops the moment a patient leaves a consultation. Patients are then free to go elsewhere to buy private drug treatment and return for further NHS care without any penalty.