Patients in England will soon be able to see if their local health authority is offering the latest approved drugs and treatments, as scorecards rating hospitals become public. The scorecards will compare the speed at which NHS hospitals deliver innovative care methods and medicines. The new rules are being brought in to tackle the postcode lottery on available treatments.
The scheme, to be rolled out before autumn, aims to create a level playing field for treatments such as IVF, for which patients living in different regions have had varying levels of opportunity to receive. Last year a report found more than 70% of NHS trusts were ignoring the guidance of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to offer infertile couples three chances at IVF, and some stopped funding treatment altogether.
The study, from a cross-party group of MPs, found Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) placed strict restrictions on who is eligible for IVF. Most PCTs put limits on the age at which they will treat women - but one PCT was only allowing women to be treated between the ages of 39 and 40. This means younger women can wait years for NHS treatment despite the fact fertility declines with age.
Some of NICE's most recent guidance, recommending an extended time to administer a clot-busting drug to treat stroke patients, for example, will soon have to be taken on by all hospitals.
Authorities found to be denying approved treatments will be held to account.
Managers fear the system could increase bureaucracy and threaten cost savings. The NHS needs to save £20bn by 2015, but at the same time it is expected to offer new treatments to patients. NHS Confederation deputy chief executive David Stout said it was important to remember the NHS was facing: "an unprecedented financial challenge and organisations must live within their means while providing high quality care. The reality is we can only afford to provide new drugs or treatments where they are cost effective and demonstrably add real patient benefits. In a health system with no financial growth, any new costs have to be offset by savings elsewhere. That is why it is crucial that NHS organisations engage their local communities and clinicians in decisions about priorities."
Currently some PCTs delay offering new drugs as recommended by NICE, while other areas use them on patients straight away. Under the scorecard scheme hospitals will have "no excuse not to provide the latest NICE-approved drugs and treatments", the Department of Health said.
Health Minister Paul Burstow said: "Patients have a right to drugs and treatments that have been approved by Nice. This new regime will be a catalyst for change - we are determined to eradicate variation and drive up standards for everyone. NHS organisations must make sure the latest Nice-approved treatments are available in their area, and if they are not, then they will now be responsible for explaining why not. Being transparent with data like this is the hallmark of a 21st-Century NHS. It is a fundamental tool to help healthcare professionals improve patient care."
NHS organisations will be automatically added onto lists of what drugs are available in local areas, which will be published for all to see.