Clinical negligence trainee Matthew Westlake discusses the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill

In February this year, a few days before his 27th birthday, a friend of mine was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. He was diagnosed with tumours in his spleen, liver and lungs (and more recently in his brain).

He was given four months to live, but told by the physicians treating him that this could be prolonged through the use of a newly available treatment called “dabrafenib”, which would hopefully slow the tumours’ growth for long enough to attempt alternative immunotherapies.

Last weekend, almost nine months on from the original diagnosis, he delivered his best man speech at his twin brother’s wedding.

As a doctor himself, my friend is fully aware that the road ahead for him is a difficult one, with the odds stacked heavily in cancer’s favour, but the fact remains that in order to have made it this far he has been provided with a highly innovative treatment.

New innovative treatments such as dabrafenib are becoming available at increasing rates, more so now than ever with the current boom in the pharma industry.

But not all of the treatments developed turn out to be clinically effective, with some even proving to be a danger to patients’ health.

It’s for this reason that, under the current law, checks and balances are in place to ensure that doctors are making careful decisions regarding the treatment plans for their patients.

They are assisted in this by the years of meticulously collected data obtained through vigilant clinical trials. If a doctor were to stray from the conventional path and attempt a ‘have a go’ treatment on a whim, they would quite rightly be held accountable for doing so.

Not however, under Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill which is one man’s crusade to remove these protections for patients.

Born of good intention, the Bill was founded on a misguided belief. A belief that patients are being denied potentially lifesaving ‘innovative’ treatments like dabrafenib because those that prescribe them fear that litigation may follow.

A belief that has never been substantiated by the bill’s author Lord Saatchi.

Thankfully, Lord Saatchi’s bill was ultimately blocked by the Lib Dems earlier this year.

Norman Lamb, the party’s health spokesperson, said that he wanted to avoid “the risk of unintended consequences” that the Bill presented. Many of us hoped that this would be the end of the matter. Sadly not.

With the Lib Dems now very much out of the parliamentary picture the bill has resurfaced in the form of the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill, a private members bill championed by Tory MP Chris Heaton Harris. Whilst redrafted, and to some extent rebranded, the principle behind the bill ultimately remains the same. It claims to:

  1. Encourage doctors to pursue innovative treatments without fear of litigation; and
  2. Establish a database of innovative medical treatments for doctors.

 In its second reading in the House of Commons last month, Chris Heaton Harris did his utmost to force the Bill through, downplaying the overwhelming opposition at every opportunity (The Royal College of Surgeons, The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, The Academy of Medical Sciences, The British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, to name a few).

He even quipped that the bill may lead to a treatment for his male pattern baldness. But masked by his light-hearted demeanour lies a truly dangerous piece of legislation. One that will almost certainly have serious unintended consequences for both patients and research bodies alike.

Whilst fellow MPs Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Alexander were on hand to speak out against the bill, and they did a commendable job in attempting to educate the House on the bill’s many inherent flaws, their reasoned arguments fell on deaf ears and the bill passed 32 to 19. It will now proceed to committee stage and only time will tell if it will go on to receive royal assent.

In writing this article I researched the definition of innovation, which is given as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”.

For me, innovation goes further than that though. Innovation should not only introduce new ideas, but in doing so it should also bring about a significant positive change.

Regrettably, despite its title, the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill does no such thing. Not only will it serve to hinder the progress of important ongoing clinical trials, thereby endangering the lives of countless patients, in changing the law around medical negligence it will remove protection from these patients and increase the chances of litigation.