Being right when you’re wrong: on NICE and the Cancer Drugs Fund

Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Be...

When rules don’t work [Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, October 1960, photo by Harry Shunk. Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Andrew Dillon, the erstwhile leader of NICE as said that it is irrational for the Cancer Drug Fund to pay for drugs that NICE has turned down.

 

He’s right of course, it is irrational. But only if NICE’s logic is compelling.

 

The problem for Sir Andrew, and likemined people, is that there is another logic that trumps NICE’s rational world. Don’t get me wrong. NICE performs a useful, but technocratic, function with analytical assessments that any rational person would indeed want to know. Where we part company is believing that NICE’s logic is the final word on the matter. Which it isn’t.

 

Tasked, perhaps unenviably, with parsing the performance of medicines and clinical practice, cannot also mean that they are above challenge. Many of NICE’s rulings fly in the face, not of logic, but of our beliefs as humans. It is why we do things when the odds are against us, because not to do so would be wrong. If we think of the challenges NICE faces as wicked problems, that is complex problems with a multiplicity of solutions, it becomes self-evident that their logic is just one way of deciding and choosing. We could use other rules, other criteria. The Cancer Drug Fund is just such an approach. It is another matter whether we should have in place alternative funding approaches that individuals can avail themselves of (such as co-payments or co-insurance); for extraordinarily costly therapies, co-funding would not apply, so we’ll back to the problem anyway.

 

NICE has a troublesome relationship with the notion of ‘rule of rescue’ and so has decided to ignore it. There replacement, the “end-of-life premium” is really just a reweighting of the logic they use.

 

You see, the rule of rescue is what we might call a meta-rule — it is a rule that tells us if other rules are working properly, and importantly, as a moral imperative which tells us what to do. The rule is often invoked in a particular form: that people facing death should be treated regardless of cost. The rule as originally formulated is really about assisting identifiable individuals facing avoidable death (Jonson, 1986); the bioethicists and economists have shifted this to a cost-effectiveness approach, making it one about trade-offs instead.

 

The problem for healthcare systems is that all patients are becoming identifiable as medicines become personalised (medicines may become orphan drugs). The problem for the NHS is that it does not allow such people to rescue themselves because it prohibits any sort of co-funding or other arrangements. The only option is an opt-out (and private medical insurance has rules about pre-existing conditions). Given the funding priorities of the NHS, we should be reflecting not so much on how to make the pot bigger, but on using the money that is available better (there will never be enough money), and ways to introduce practical co-funding.

 

Since individuals have no other options in the NHS, the rule of rescue as a moral imperative will be violated and we will act, not out of analytical error (i.e. make a technical mistake), but unethically. You see, the NHS must be the healthcare system of last resort and therefore of rescue, otherwise, identified individuals are destined to a death sanctioned by public policy and is that a policy or healthcare system worth having?

 

We have seen a similar challenge to NHS/NICE logic recently with the King family and proton beam therapy, and the NHS will also use NICE logic to determine access. Whether beams or drugs, it is the same argument.

 

But why cancer? The main public policy question is why should cancer patients be given preferential treatment as against any other deserving group? This may in part be driven by the often astronomical costs of new cancer therapies themselves, which demarcate cancer patients decisively from equally deserving patients with less cost-contentious therapies. I have just finished some work on motor neuron disease, for which there is one specific medicine and life expectancy from diagnosis is 3 to 5 years, with median survival rates that are measured in months. NICE reportedly is developing guidelines for this disease. Costs are considerable, and at least in the UK, highlight the bureaucratic illogic of separate healthcare and social care, but that is another story.

 

The moral dilemma that the economists at NICE are trying to reduce to an equation is whether a new therapy is extending life, or delaying death. The Oregon approach collapsed when the hard choices emerged and people were unable to resolve this dilemma, which is not a quantitative issue, but one of how we value our humanity. Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript speaks of the leap to faith as involving self-reflection and the emergence of scepticism. It is worrisome that NICE is so confident.

Further reading

 

Cookson R, McCabe C, Tsuchiya A. Public healthcare resource allocation and the Rule of Rescue. J Med Ethics. 2008 Jan 7 [cited 2014 Sep 4];34(7):540–4.
Jonsen, AR 1986, Bentham in a box: technology assessment and health care allocation, Law, Medicine and Health Care, Vol 14, pp172–4.
Richardson J, McKie J. The rule of rescue, working paper 112, Centre for Health Program Evaluation, Monash University

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