In recent months I have become so used to being bashed over the head by press releases from the Department of Health, that I have developed an almost Pavlovian response - the head bows, shoulders go down, I duck for cover.
So it was only while peering carefully from a place of safety that I was pleasantly surprised by one of their latest pronouncements - to give NICE new responsibilities to look at fair pricing for pharmaceuticals. For all its imperfections, NICE has been one of the best developments in the NHS in recent years. It has brought some much needed clarity to prescribing guidelines and a degree of protection from the seemingly irresistible lure of the latest best thing to be marketed by the pharmaceutical industry. It can only be a good thing for NICE to be more involved in helping to bring common sense, and the needs of the NHS, to bear upon drug pricing.
In fact, I think it is such a good idea, that I would like to make some suggestions for how they could take things even further - by looking at some of the bizarre, irrational and often downright scandalous anomalies that exist within the drug tariff.
Take nebivolol, for instance, an important beta-blocker for some cardiac patients. It comes in both 2.5mg and 5mg tablets - how can it possibly make sense that the half-strength tablet costs the NHS over 30 times as much as its stronger counterpart? The anti-depressant paroxetine is similar - the multiplication factor is less extreme, with the 10mg tablet being only 6 times more expensive than its 20mg cousin, but the illogicality and blatant unfairness is the same.
Lest any doctor get wise to the fact that lower strength tablets might be more expensive, we have the opposite situation with omeprazole. For most drugs it is more expensive to prescribe two low dose tablets than a single tablet of a higher dose- but 40mg omeprazole is twice as expensive as the equivalent dose in 20mg tablets. I have to ask my patients to swallow their pills twice as often, but most are more than willing once they realise it is the scarce resources of the NHS which are at stake.
Even if I prescribe the drug perfectly, price inflation can still happen in the most unpredictable way before the medicine leaves the pharmacy. The breast cancer drug letrozole is a prime example. It is only given as a 2.5mg dose, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out that pack sizes can make all the difference. If the drug is issued in packs of 14 the price is £1.89, while packs of 28 cost a staggering £73.24. What is going on here? A pharmacist who is on the ball and gives 2 packs of 14 will be saving the NHS nearly £70 a time - but if they all did that then how come the packs of 28 would manage to sell?
How am I meant to know all of this? Can I remember it all, each and every time I prescribe? Even if I could - do we want doctors to have to learn the prices of drugs? Wouldn’t we rather they spent their time keeping up to date with real medicine instead?
There can only be one reason why these pricing anomalies occur - bombard and bamboozle doctors enough with confusing prices and some of them won’t notice, leading to vast sums of money bleeding its way into the coffers of big pharma. It is a marketing strategy that is not unfamiliar to anyone who pays a utility bill; price plans are so bewildering that the companies rely on many of us making the wrong choice and paying over the odds. The Government has become wise to this and is trying its best to limit the number of price plans companies can offer. If the Government can protect the voting public in this way then it should do the same for the NHS and start limiting the marketing opportunities of the pharmaceutical industry.
NICE should be involved in changing this. I have a simple formula to suggest to them, and it goes like this: Every drug should have an agreed, fair price for its lowest dose, and as you double the dose, you double the price. What could be simpler? There would be no more bizarre pricing arrangements, nor could a drug rep boast that their product has a fixed pricing regime whilst their rival’s does not - nor could the tariff be changed at the whim of the company once my patients are established on their treatment.
Everyone would know where they were, every drug would be fair.
Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68