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Half-Baked and Reheated, the Medical Anecdote Bill Returns to the Commons Today

16/10/2015 08:32 BST | Updated 16/10/2016 10:12 BST

We all want to be able to access effective treatments as quickly and safely as possible. Why then do the overwhelming majority of research and medical bodies alongside the Patients Association and Action against Medical Accidents so firmly oppose the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill?

In a nutshell because it will do nothing for genuine innovation or to improve access to treatments but it will confuse the legislation, remove important protections for patients from reckless practitioners and undermine research.

This bill is a reheated version of the half-baked Medical Innovation Bill which was thrown out in the last Parliament. If it was a turkey pie, you wouldn't touch it.

It starts from the false premise that fear of litigation is the key impediment to innovation. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, The Academy of Medical Sciences, Cancer Research UK, The Wellcome Trust and a very long list of other research charities have all made it clear that they disagree... that they do not see the need for this legislation and that they do not believe the bill will achieve it stated aims. They all speak of the unintended consequences for patients and for medical research alike.

It is hard to see why the government is not firmly opposing this bill.

Existing legal and professional ethics arrangements already allow responsible innovation. Action against Medical Accidents set out the risk of creating a 'Heaton Harris' legal defence which would make it easier for rogue doctors to carry out risky but 'innovative' procedures or 'have a go' treatments. Under the proposals, these doctors would only be required to obtain the views of at least one other doctor with experience of patients with the condition in question. There is nothing to protect patients from doctors who selectively seek the views of peers who are themselves profiting from newly permissive experimentation.

Faced with a dreadful diagnosis, people are at their most vulnerable to the siren call of innovation. Why take part in a clinical trial if seeing a private clinic would guarantee something innovative? The problem of course is that innovative treatments may turn out to be more harmful than existing treatment or none but a series of anecdotal treatments means that neither we nor patients will ever know.

The bill seeks to address this by tagging on powers for the government to set up a database of these anecdotal treatments. If publicly searchable it would make for wonderful free advertising for private clinics but a vast sprawling register of treatments is no substitute for a proper evaluation of evidence and simply fails to understand the science.

There is no need for legislation to create a database that would be of genuine value to patients and the research community alike, it does however, require funding.

Clinical trials already struggle to find enough participants without this undermining legislation; far better for government to build on improving access and information about clinical trials for those who would like to take part and to focus on their 'Accelerated Access Review' which is examining how to speed up access to new drugs, devices and diagnostics for NHS patients.

When I worked on a children's ward as a junior doctor in the late 1980s, the outlook for childhood leukaemia was grim. That so many of those diagnosed with the same conditions today will survive and thrive is not thanks to a series of anecdotal treatments but because of the meticulous research which allowed us to discover the best treatments. Patients today benefit thanks to the thousands who took part in clinical trials before them and very many go on themselves to take part in the studies that will help others in the future.

None of us will benefit from undermining clinical research with unwanted and ill-judged legislation. MPs should send it to the sluice.

Sarah Wollaston is the Conservative MP for Totnes, and chair of the health select committee