Jeremy Hunt, the UK Health Secretary, is considering changing negligence laws to make it easier for doctors to make medical breakthroughs in response to a private members Bill tabled by Lord Saatchi on innovation in medicine.
The Medical Innovation Bill by Lord Saatchi attempts to protect doctors from being struck off or sued when they prescribe innovative treatments that do not conform to standard medical procedure. Lord Saatchi was interviewed by the Independent in October, claiming “doctors are too scared of legal action to try innovative treatments”
The UK Government last month objected to a private member’s Bill on the issue tabled by Lord Saatchi. The peer described that decision as a “tragedy for cancer patients and their families”. Lord Saatchi said that he had been told by officials at the Department of Health that they considered his Bill to be “unnecessary”, with one civil servant suggesting it was not needed because there was “already a cure for cancer”.
However, Mr Hunt, Health Secretary, yesterday said that the Government had confirmed it would be consulting on the proposal. Mr Hunt said the Bill represented the “noble” hope of Lord Saatchi that this “innovation could lead to major breakthroughs, such as a cure for cancer.”
He said: “The Government should do whatever is needed to remove barriers that prevent innovation which can save and improve lives. We must create a climate where clinical pioneers have the freedom to make breakthroughs in treatment.”
“Current law is a barrier to progress in curing cancer.”
Lord Saatchi’s wife of 27 years, Josephine Hart, died two years ago. She had a rare ovarian tumour that was hard to treat because so little is known about it from large-scale clinical trials. Following the death of his wife, Lord Saatchi admitted he had thought of suicide “continuously”. He said: “Cancer is a disease which is relentless, remorseless and merciless. I also found the treatment was medieval, degrading and ineffective.”
Professor Stephen Kennedy, Clinical Director of Women’s Services at Oxford University NHS Trust, supports Lord Saatchi’s Bill because he said doctors are more risk averse in a more litigious culture, where they face being disciplined by the General Medical Council if they do not conform to standard practice.
“Doctors are afraid of being struck off for not following standard practice and they are afraid of how innovation is seen by the general public,” Professor Kennedy said.
“The problem is particularly acute for rare cancers. What do you do when confronted with a patient with a rare cancer where the evidence base is not strong or when there is no evidence?” he said.
Lord Saatchi yesterday said that he was “grateful” and “delighted” that the Government was making “a decisive movement to take the Bill forward”.
Speaking in the House of Lords last January, Lord Saatchi said current medical negligence laws were acting as a roadblock to cures for cancer.
In a moving speech to peers, he said: “Cancer science has not yet found its Newton. There is a powerful deterrent to innovation at the heart of the current system. Under present law any deviation by a doctor from standard procedure is likely to result in a verdict of guilt for medical negligence.”
Michael Ellis, the Conservative MP for Northampton North, who has proposed the changes to the negligence laws alongside Lord Saatchi, has warned that the NHS last year paid out £1.2 billion for lawsuits brought against medical professionals.
Mr Ellis said that while he did not want patients to be treated as mice, the number of lawsuits against medical professionals prevented many doctors from innovating.