Report looks at access to cancer drugs in Europe

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new report into the availability of cancer drugs across Europe has revealed that patients still face unequal access depending on where they live.

The greatest inequalities and gaps in cancer survival are found when comparing eastern Europe with northern and western Europe, according to the latest Comparator report, which looked at the EU member states, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

Cancer incidence is increasing but mortality is decreasing - a trend the report authors attribute to improvements in screening programmes and treatments.

Dr Nils Wilking, clinical oncologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and one of the report authors, commented: "New treatments have made it possible to target diseases more effectively. For cancer patients, these newer therapies mean an improved quality of life, with less time spent in hospital and the chance to return to their day-to-day activities earlier."

However, survival rates differ greatly across Europe. While 60.3 per cent of men and 61.7 per cent of women in Sweden survive a cancer diagnosis, the same can be said for only 37.7 per cent of men and 49.3 per cent of women in the Czech Republic.

The UK lags behind the frontrunners, with survival standing at 40.2 to 48.1 per cent for men and 48 to 54.1 per cent for women.

With regard to access to newer cancer treatments, the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic were found to lag behind Austria, France and Switzerland.

Brian Ager, director general of EFPIA, which represents the pharmaceutical industry in Europe, pointed out: "Appropriate access to new treatments is vital, and examining variations in patient access between countries is a positive way to stimulate discussions on the optimal use of new technologies and treatment."

The report authors have urged policymakers to take action and proposed new policies to improve access to treatment.

These include adapting healthcare budgets and hospital budgets to accommodate new cancer therapies; the introduction of separate funding for cancer therapies; faster review times for new anti-cancer drugs; and a European collaborative approach to collect information for Health Technology Assessment (HTA).

Professor Bengt Jonsson, professor of health economics at the Stockholm School of Economics and report co-author, commented: "The inequalities - highlighted in our original report in 2005 - still remain.

"For patients and society this is a real concern, as expectations are that all patients in Europe should have equal opportunity to access these treatments, particularly when evidence shows that access to cancer treatment is linked to an improvement in outcome."

Hilary Jackson, policy manager at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the report, but pointed out that the UK government is already moving to decrease inequalities.

"Recent moves by the UK governments to increase the availability of cancer drugs, including faster review processes and changes to how drugs are approved, should go some way to reducing differences in access to cancer drugs between ourselves and the rest of Europe," she said.

"But these differences in survival rates could also be reduced by improving the early detection of cancer. Cancers caught earlier are easier to treat and generally respond better to this treatment.

"We also need an emphasis on better and earlier diagnosis to ensure that we no longer continue to lag behind our European counterparts," she added.