Suzanne White on the dangers of the Saatchi Bill, as it comes back to the House of Commons with a new name but still opposed by medical and legal experts

When I wrote my first blog on the Saatchi Bill over a year ago; it was very much in its infancy and that is where I thought it would stay.

The bill followed the death of Lord Saatchi’s wife Josephine Hart who sadly died of cancer in June 2011.

He believes incorrectly that doctors are reluctant to give innovative drugs to patients for fear of being sued. There remains no evidence to support this incorrect assumption.

The bill was initially introduced in the House of Lords as a Private Members Bill by Lord Saatchi. It resulted in much debate and many amendments.

Pioneering doctors, including Lord Robert Winston, and Lord Lesley Turnberg, argued strongly in the Lords against the bill as it would undermine clinical research and would put vulnerable patients at risk from quack doctors willing to sell their snake oil remedies to those in most desperation.

These well founded concerns were dismissed and almost ignored.

Eminent lawyers such Lord Pannick and Lord Brennan raised their concerns about changing the law, that such poorly drafted legislation would lead to more litigation not less, and affirmed that the law was presently adequate and pragmatic. Again their concerns fell on deaf ears.

Throughout its journey Lord Saatchi used his influence with the Bill’s ‘media partner’ the Telegraph to persuade the public that the bill would help the people who might cure cancer.

But despite being the greatest PR man of his generation, he was not prepared for the unprecedented opposition to this bill.

The BMA, Cancer Research UK , Robert Francis QC, Chair of the Health Committee and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, the Academy of Medical Sciences, AvMA, The Patient Association and the Royal Colleges, the list goes on and on of those who opposed this Bill.

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Even The Medical Defence Union which represents doctors when they are being sued, vehemently opposed the Bill; stating yet again that there is no evidence to substantiate that doctors are afraid to give innovative drugs or treatment for fear of being sued.

As the bill progressed through the Lords, there was clearly  serious concerns about the implications of the bill from cancer specialists,  so much so that 100 professors and consultants of oncology and leading cancer experts wrote to the Times stating that the bill could be harmful to patients.

Despite the mass of opposition, the Bill was passed through the Lords and went into the Commons just before the election.

The bill was running out of time before the election and Norman Lamb made a considered and informed decision after listening to the relevant bodies, he decided that the Bill should not be given debating time. The Bill was stopped.

The reaction by Lord Saatchi in the press was predictable but no less concerning for that, given he is not an elected representative.

And yet here we are again, the bill is being re-introduced this week in the House of Commons.

Chris Heaton Harris MP  is introducing it as a Private Member’s bill and it has been renamed as the Access to Medical Treatment (Innovation) Bill.

The bill is essentially the same; and it is intended to stop doctors and their employers from being sued for negligent treatment and care, which has  caused injury or death to a patient.

As Sarah Wollaston  MP says :

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There will be no redress for patients. Doctors that are negligent will rely on this Bill. Doctors who are not negligent do not need it.

The Bill fails to take in to account the recent new law of consent set out in Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board. How this precedent will work with this bill will add to the confusion and chaos.

There is one addition to be bill that of a database about innovative medical treatments carried out by doctors. After talking to clinicians about this so called 'database' it is clear they are concerned.

If the innovation treatment is given outside of a clinical trial environment, how do we know what is a success or failure?

Even worse could be the bill’s impact on clinical trials. Patients could opt for treatment under the Saatchi bill rather than taking part in clinical trials.

What the bill will do is confuse doctors as to what they can and cannot do when giving innovative treatment.

The lack of clarity in the law will increase litigation. It will be the bill of unintended consequences.

It may have a new name but Lord Saatchi’s misguided fingerprints are all over this potentially dangerous bill.