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GPs urged to cut drugs bill

The NHS could save more than £300 million a year if doctors prescribed medicines more effectively, the government's spending watchdog has said.According to the National Audit Office (NAO), which examined how medics could cut prescribing costs without compromising patient care, the drugs bill within the primary-care sector has increased by 60 per cent in real times over the past decade.The NAO, which said that the NHS spent more than £8 billion on primary care medicines in 2006, warned that medicines were often wasted as a result of GPs over prescribing and patients failing to use them.In a report published today, the NAO concluded that there were "large variations" between primary care trusts (PCTs) in the extent to which lower cost drugs were prescribed for common conditions.Examining prescriptions for statins, drugs which are used to treat high cholesterol, the study found that the proportion of them which were low cost varied from 28 to 86 per cent across PCTs in England.The NAO concluded that the NHS could save more than £200 million a year if all PCTs prescribed the four most common types of drugs as effectively as the top-performing 25 per cent of local health bodies.It added that more than £300 million could be saved if all PCTs prescribed drugs as efficiently as the top ten per cent of PCTs."There is significant scope for the NHS to improve the value for money of prescribing in primary care," said NAO chief Sir John Bourn."If GPs more often followed official guidelines and prescribed generic and other cheaper drugs where suitable, then there would be more money to treat patients and pay for expensive or innovative treatments," he added.In addition to calling for doctors to prescribe more efficiently, the NAO also warned that an estimated £100 million worth of drugs were returned unused to the NHS each year and stressed that the Department of Health needed to do more to identify the scale at which medicines were being wasted and why patients were not taking drugs prescribed to them.Today's study follows a recent report by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which called for a reform of drug pricing procedures in order to cut NHS spending.Welcoming the NAO study the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said that every pound spent on expensive drugs when there was a cheaper alternative available was "a pound that cannot be spent to the benefit of other patients".But while acknowledging that the NHS needed to achieve value for money, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) warned that the needs of patients should not be "sidelined" in order to save cash."While cheaper versions of some medicines may well be appropriate for many patients, they are not always so and doctors must be supported in looking at the true 'value' an individual medicine can bring, and not simply its cost," said ABPI commercial director David Fisher.Commenting on the report, the health minister Lord Hunt said that government "recognises the importance of getting the best value for money for the NHS"."This NAO report largely reinforces the range of action already put in place by the [Department of Health] and the NHS to secure best value for money from the £8 billion spend on medicines," he added."Recent prescribing information shows that the NHS is already starting to deliver these additional savings, and further indicators are being developed to help drive more efficient prescribing for other conditions."

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