Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has paved the way for a law change to protect doctors who want to innovate in treating cancer from the threat of litigation.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Friday, Hunt (pictured) said the government should do ‘whatever is needed’ to remove barriers that prevent innovation in the treatment of cancer.
The government will begin a consultation on the issue in January and expects to respond by May 2014.
Hunt’s intervention comes following bills in both houses of parliament, the first brought forward in the Lords by Conservative peer Lord Saatchi. The advertising mogul brought forward the Medical Innovation Bill after his wife, the writer Josephine Hart, died from peritoneal cancer in June 2011.
The bill aims to codify into law what constitutes best practice and widen the definition of ‘standard procedure’ to include more innovative care, with any deviation from accepted practice is likely to result in a finding of negligence if the practitioner cannot establish a reason for adopting the treatment he did.
In his statement, Hunt agreed the threat of litigation is a barrier to breakthroughs in medical innovation.
‘This innovation could lead to major breakthroughs, such as a cure for cancer,’ said Hunt, who added that legislation will follow the consultation response at the earliest opportunity.
‘It is precisely because this issue is so important, because it affects us all, that we need a full and open consultation. A consultation that gets the views of patients on the right balance between innovation and safeguards.’
Saatchi said he has growing public support for his bill and thanked Hunt for his support.
He added: ‘Jeremy Hunt’s clear statement of support for the Medical Innovation Bill is wonderful news for cancer patients. If - it’s too early to say when - the bill is passed, it will be a huge stride forward in helping doctors and scientists find new cures for cancer.’
The bill has raised concerns from clinical negligence solicitors since it was first mooted last year.
Writing in the Gazette, Robert Illidge, a medical negligence solicitor at north-west firm Ralli, said the threat of litigation was not a major factor in preventing innovation.
‘I do not feel that we can be held responsible for holding back the development of cancer treatments and cures.
‘From my experience, those practitioners dealing in this area are deeply committed, and if they feel a new treatment should be tried or something slightly more unusual is warranted, then they quite rightly seek a second and third medical opinion and the client’s consent – and they proceed accordingly.
‘If the treatment proves unsuccessful this certainly would not give rise to a medical negligence claim.’