Saturday, 6 September 2008

Exclusive: Sky News has uncovered evidence that NHS staff are coming under political pressure to spin the headlines

We have obtained a letter, written by a senior representative of the Department of Health, which strongly criticises England's largest primary care trust for failing to "manage" the media.

North Yorkshire and York PCT had been singled out for its handling of so-called exceptional cases, in which patients ask to be treated with medicines that have yet to be approved for use on the NHS.

Newspapers highlighted cancer patients who had been denied expensive new drugs.

Yorkshire and Humber Strategic Health Authority, which ensures Department of Health policy is followed in the region, wrote to the PCTs chief executive demanding urgent action.

"This has resulted in damage to the reputation of the NHS. The PCT needs to look at how the media messages can be managed more effectively... to stem the national harm to the NHS profile that this constant publicity is creating."

But Dr Peter Brambleby, the director of public health for the PCT, is so angry about the letter that he has blown the whistle.

Speaking exclusively to Sky News, he said: "It is our general responsibility to protect the NHS brand, but we shouldn't be driven as a first consideration by what will this look like in the headlines in the local newspaper.

"Our first consideration has to be the health of the population, the evidence base behind which the decision is going to be made, and showing that we're responsible stewards of public funds. That's our job and that's what protects the NHS brand."

He said politicians should keep clear of clinical decisions over patients' treatment.

"The easy way out of managing adverse headlines in the short term is to simple to say yes to every request that has caught the media attention. But I don't think for a moment that any member of the public would recognise that as a legitimate criterion for prioritising funding," he said.

His comments are hugely embarrassing for the Department of Health, which has insisted that local health managers are free to make their own decisions over how they spend money for local patients.

The Tories said the Department of Health's bureaucrats were wrong to send the letter. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley MP said they missed the point.

"Everybody else in Europe seems to be able to get access to these drugs, but we don't. That's what I want to see them working on. How they can ensure that primary care trusts are using their resources to ensure patients get the treatment they need, not trying to cover up the bad stories when they don't."

Some of the negative headlines involved the Velcade Three. Jacky Pickles, Janice Wrigglesworth and Marie Morton all have multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

They have campaigned for treatment with Velcade, and encourage patients who have been denied the drug to go to the papers.

They make no apology for embarrassing the PCT.

Jacky Pickles said: "If someone says to you you can be quiet and die, or you can challenge and maybe live want to see your children grow up, don't you?

"We've all got children and we want to see them grow up. You'd challenge anybody to see your children grow up."

Even the government's cancer csar is critical of the local variations in access to new medicines. He says PCTs don't have the expertise to judge complex drugs. He wants regional panels of specialists to take over the role.

"I am extremely keen that there is equal access to treatment across the whole of the NHS, because that I believe is one of the founding principles of the NHS," he said.

The Department of Health turned down our request for an interview.

The Strategic Health Authority said all PCTs must be open and transparent about their procedures and explain their decisions: "There has never been any question of political interference in any decision," it said.

article here

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