November 7, 2005

The growing use of orphan drugs -- medications used to treat rare diseases and conditions -- by UK healthcare provider the National Health Service (NHS) is straining budgets, according to two new articles published in the British Medical Journal.

Orphan drugs are often expensive and are of little overall benefit as they only treat a very small number of patients. In the past, the NHS has been willing to pay for orphan drugs as they have been used only rarely and the effect on the total budget has been negligible. However, as more orphan drugs become available, the impact on NHS spending is growing, and some industry sources are calling for the NHS to stop providing them.

Critics of such action have stressed that a person's health should not be considered of less value purely because the condition they are suffering from is rare. They go on to state that by giving orphan drugs a special status in NHS funding they are avoiding potentially difficult and unpopular decisions in the future.

However, industry sources claim that a nation-wide commitment to provide orphan drugs will mean that resources will be over-stretched and that patients with more common diseases will pay the cost, suffering from reduced access to cheap and effective drugs.

The UK is currently trying to reduce its drug spending, which stands at around US$417.6 per capita. Pharmaceutical prices are among the highest in Europe and new measures have included imposing a mandatory 7% price reduction for all drugmakers with sales to the NHS of over GBP1mn (US$1.75mn).