The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the independent agency in the UK charged, amongst other things, with assessing the cost-effectiveness of new drugs. In a report published on 19 November 2009, NICE found that the drug sorafenib, branded as Nexavar by its manufacturer, the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer AG, was not cost-effective. The drug can extend the life of terminally ill patients with liver cancer. However, it is very expensive, costing about £3000 per month per patient.
The NICE press release (see link below) quotes Andrew Dillon, the Chief Executive of NICE, as saying: “We were disappointed not to have been able to recommend the use of sorafenib, but after carefully considering all the evidence, including the proposed ‘patient access scheme’ in which the manufacturer offered to provide every fourth pack free, sorafenib does not provide enough benefit to patients to justify its high cost.”
Not surprisingly people suffering from liver cancer, and also various patient groups, were highly critical of the decision. But with a limited budget for the National Health Service and the increasing pressure to save costs in order to reduce the public-sector debt, many difficult choices like this have to be made.
What NICE attempts to do is a cost–benefit analysis of new drugs. Whilst costs can be difficult to measure, especially over the longer term, the benefits are much more problematic as they have to take into account the effects on the quality of people’s lives – something that will vary enormously from one patient to another. And then there are the effects on family and friends and on the economy. The measure used in the NHS and elswhere is the QALY – ‘quality-adjusted life year’. In paragraph 4.8 of the full NICE report (see link below), it was noted that
“the base-case ICER [incremental cost-effectiveness ratio] presented by the manufacturer was originally £64,800 per QALY gained and when the patient access scheme was included [where every fourth pack is supplied free to the NHS by Bayer] this went down to £51,900 per QALY gained. Both ICERs were substantially higher than those normally considered to be an acceptable use of NHS resources.”
2009/069 NICE appraisal of sorafenib for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma NICE press release (19/11/09)
Final appraisal determination Sorafenib for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (Full document) NICE (19/11/09)
NHS denies drug to cancer patients (video) ITN (on YouTube) (18/11/09)
Liver cancer drug ‘too expensive’ (including videos) BBC News (19/11/09)
UK’s NICE says Bayer liver cancer drug too costly Reuters (18/11/09)
Nice’s decision not to approve the liver cancer drug Nexavar is painful but necessary and Drug for terminal liver cancer patients ‘too expensive’Telegraph, Rebecca Smith (19/11/09)
NHS says it’s too expensive to keep you alive Telegraph, Janet Daley (19/11/09)
Bayer’s patent case hearing in HC today Tines of India (18/11/09)
- What makes the choice of whether to provide a particular drug to a pateint an ‘economic’ one?
- Imagine you were a person suffering from liver cancer. What evidence would you wish to bring to the government to persuade it to ignore NICE’s recommendation?
- Is the use of QALYs the best means of assessing the benefits of a drug? Explain.
- What are the arguments for and againist the NHS providing expensive drugs free to people on low incomes but charging a price well above the current prescription fee to those who could afford to pay? If such as scheme were introduced, on what basis should such a price be determined and should it be on a sliding scale according to people’s income and/or wealth?