Lord Saatchi, driven by the loss of his wife to cancer, is seeking to remove some of the perceived barriers to medical innovation and research with a view to helping the medical profession progress in improving treatments in this and other areas.
The Bill looks to give doctors more freedom to innovate. He feels that medicine has become too defensive and that doctors are loathe to innovate for fear of litigation.
We are all in favour of innovation to save lives, but medical research and innovation is complex – is it possible to have a more open approach without endangering lives? Indeed, Lord Saatchi has no intention of opening the door to reckless experimentation.
So how does research work at present? Robust safeguards are put in place for any new treatments and patients are given clear, independent advice about their options by someone with no vested interest. The results are then fed into the research and conclusions will be drawn across a wide group of people, rather than just an individual. It takes time to build up a picture. Doctors can already depart from standard treatment as long as a reasonable body of the medical profession would agree.
So, do we really need a Bill? Its aims are commendable but it is surely more appropriate to educate rather than legislate in these circumstances. Perhaps we could have a debate about the ethical guidelines and standards in the medical profession to see whether they allow sufficient innovation, and maybe the speed of research could be improved, as long as this does not remove the protection for the patient.
The key will be how they seek to define ‘innovation’. With any policy change comes unintended consequences which the Government will need to guard against. Could legislation create more bureaucracy and red tape? We do not want to see an environment where doctors feel compelled to innovate, or worse still, be threatened with prosecution for not innovating. Worse still, it could give patients the power to press for a treatment they have heard about on the internet, even if there is no science to support its use, or make doctors more susceptible to commercial pressures from drug companies at the expense of vulnerable patients. A terminally ill patient will jump at any offer – it is not so much informed consent as desperation.