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Medical Innovation Bill: is a lack of innovation or a lack of investment the biggest barrier to finding a cure for cancer?

Last year advertising guru Lord Saatchi introduced the Medical Innovation Bill which aims to prevent doctors being held liable for medical negligence if they test experimental new cancer treatments on patients.

Losing his wife to a rare form of cancer in 2011, Lord Saatchi believes that the current regulations surrounding cancer treatment, and the threat of litigation should things go wrong actually create barrier to finding a cure. Believing current treatments to be “medieval, degrading and ineffective” Lord Saatchi wants to see the medical profession move beyond licensed treatments and palliative care and instead seek out new, alternative and ground-breaking treatments in a bid to beat cancer once and for all.

It is fair to say that the Bill has received a great deal of support. For many people faced with advanced and/or incurable cancer the possibility of a lifeline, no matter how remote is understandably a welcome option. Freed from the threat of litigation many claim that the bill will allow doctors and scientists to test out innovative medical theories without fear of redress.

However while support for the Medical Innovation Bill is understandable, its logic is sadly flawed.

I don’t think any of us want to stifle medical innovation. The desire to save lives and find previously unknown cures for diseases such as cancer is something we all want our medical professionals to strive towards, but it’s not the threat of litigation that is stopping this from happening. Indeed leading research doctor Professor John Radford from the Christie Hospital in Manchester stated on BBC Breakfast that the threat of negligence claims has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of medical innovation.

The fact of the matter is that ground-breaking clinical research is already being carried out across the UK. There are cancer centres such as the aforementioned Christie uncovering and testing new cancer treatments all the time. In addition the law as it currently stands would not find a doctor guilty of medical negligence as long as the body of opinion amongst other medical professional believed their actions to be reasonable. Would medical professionals really believe a doctor to be negligent for prescribing an experimental treatment to a terminally ill patient with no other options as long as the patient was aware of the experimental nature of the treatment? The truth of the matter is that doctors are encouraged to push the boundaries of medical science with the full protection of the law. However it is vital that before any new treatments come into wider use these are properly tested and fully licenced.

Under the proposed regulations however, doctors would no longer have to tell patients that any treatments being received were new and untested. In addition as long as the defence could argue that the doctor was ‘innovating’ even if the doctor caused injury or death no medical negligence claim could be made. Today the law protects patients from medical negligence what is needed is not relaxed regulation and reduced patient safety but investment into additional research. There is no need to change the current law.

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