Doctors sign letter of opposition to Medical Innovation Bill

In collaboration with the Press Association

More than 100 leading researchers and doctors have signed a letter, published in The Times, opposing draft legislation that proposes to let patients to be given experimental medical treatments.

"These concerns lead us to conclude that there is no pressing need for this legislation." - Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK

The Medical Innovation Bill, championed by advertising supremo Lord Maurice Saatchi, aims to allow doctors to offer innovative and experimental techniques to patients who have failed to respond to conventional therapies.

Lord Saatchi began campaigning for the law reform after his wife, novelist Josephine Hart, died from a form of ovarian cancer three years ago.

In the letter, the oncologists say that the law of medical negligence does not hinder their work or prevent innovation, before adding: “We are concerned that rather than promoting responsible scientific innovation in the treatment of cancer, the Medical Innovation Bill will actually encourage irresponsible experimentation producing nothing more than anecdotal ‘evidence’, at the potential expense of causing serious harm and suffering to patients.”

Signatories to the letter include several clinical researchers funded by Cancer Research UK.

Sarah Woolnough, the charity's executive director of policy and information, said it was “very sympathetic to Lord Saatchi's tragic personal story,” and that it fully supports the ambition that the NHS should readily adopt new innovations which can help cancer patients.

"We know that both doctors and patients feel that innovation in cancer treatment is an important issue,” she added.

But she said that, following extensive dialogue with cancer clinicians, the risk of legal action was not seen to be an impediment to giving patients the best possible care.

“There is also a risk of unintended consequences, such as undermining the value of research,” she said. "These concerns lead us to conclude that there is no pressing need for this legislation."

Other experts have spoken out against the need for legislation, saying their work is "not hindered" by law and that the best practice for innovation is "within the discipline of controlled clinical trials".

But Lord Saatchi believes that with safeguards in place - such as requirements for doctors to obtain the agreement of another specialist before drug prescriptions are allowed - the Bill will provide more certainty for healthcare staff and promote innovation.

Professor Jose Miola, professor of medical law at the University of Leicester and a member of the Stop the Saatchi Bill team, says there are better ways to achieve this, adding that the Bill risks allowing negligent doctors to avoid liability.