19. January 2015

Is the media weaning itself off drugs? Why access to cancer drugs keeps returning as a media issue


Meadia weaning off Drugs_Landscape

Last week’s decision by NHS England to delist 25 cancer treatments for some of the disease’s biggest killers – breast, bowel and prostate – has once again thrust the access to drugs story back on to the front pages and up to the top of the news agenda. Since its launch was announced back in 2010, the Cancer Drugs Fund has been making headlines. It is a highly emotive and personal topic. And there is nothing reporters and their editors like more than a human interest story with a villain to blame.

The start of 2015 has already seen an unprecedented A&E crisis sending the beleaguered NHS straight to the forefront of media coverage. Now, the controversial CDF shake-up has further highlighted the dire state of the NHS purse strings, starkly exposing the increasingly tough decisions having to be made by those trying to balance the books. It has once again become a goldmine for Health Editors and Correspondents and proves there is clearly still an appetite for covering cancer drug access stories.

The controversial CDF shake-up has further highlighted the dire state of the NHS purse strings.

Before the CDF, the media was awash with tales of outrage when patients were forced to take their local health authority to court to get access to a drug or were having to move counties to get them or even sell their house to pay for drugs privately. Quite rightly, the media took up the fight, helping give people a voice with which to question “the powers that be” – their local NHS Trust, NICE, the Government – and demand answers and access. The role of the media has always been to be the voice of the people, to ask the questions they cannot of the people they cannot get to. And nothing highlights that better than the CDF debate. Because what you ultimately have here is a very human story. And the media love a human story.

Stories with a strong personal angle are what journalists are always on the look out for over and above a political bun fight or a cold hard cash angle. They want stories their readers, viewers or listeners can identify with, that will make them feel sympathy and then perhaps outrage that cancer sufferers are being denied access to life-saving medicine. They want stories that make people say “thank goodness that isn’t me”. Or “what if that WAS me? Or my family member or friend?” The human interest stories allow the audience to more easily relate to complex political or policy issues and they can help boil down complicated science and medicine stories into something they can easily understand and put in a personal context.

The other compelling story angle surrounding the CDF is that it cuts to the heart of what the NHS is at its core. It is a service which was founded on the promise of free healthcare for all. So when it starts denying drugs to the dying because they are too expensive, the gloves come off. In recent years, before the creation of the CDF in 2011, barely a week went by without a drug access story being covered in the media. But once the initial media storm surrounding the launch of the CDF died down, the political and economic landscape of the country by then looked very different. Highlighting problems with the CDF became a difficult sell for charities and patient groups which wanted to keep the debate alive. Arguing that tens of thousands of pounds should be spent on a drug for one person to give them just a few more weeks of life when everyone else was facing an increasingly crippling cost of living and the country was gasping under the weight of record debt became a much more difficult argument to justify. Faced with a financial crisis, people became better able to grasp that the NHS is not a bottomless pit of cash and sympathies for the unquestioned approval of grossly expensive medicines began to waver.

Last week, Andrew Wilson, who is chief executive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation said both the drug companies and NHS England “bear responsibility for this mess”. Some drug companies have said they are considering seeking a judicial review about the decision to scrap their drugs from the Fund which would reignite the debate in the media. As the end of March deadline for the removal of the de-listed drugs draws nearer, both patient groups and pharma companies will be highlighting the obvious human interest stories – the patient getting a drug one day and another not getting it the following day. There will be demands for drugs to be made available to the NHS at a lower cost. Pharma companies will demand a more transparent review process. And with the general election coming just over a month later, the CDF will be an obvious political football as Britain’s two largest political parties place the NHS firmly at the centre of the coming election debate. However it plays out, it is clear that the CDF story still has a long way to run.

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