Growing spend on NHS medicines could compromise patients’ access to drugs, a healthcare think tank has said.

A new King’s Fund report showed that NHS funding levels are not keeping pace with the rising drug bill, which could prevent patients from getting their medicines.

Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, NHS spend on drugs rose from £13bn to £17.4bn – an average growth of 5% per year – while the NHS budget grew by 1% a year.

‘Struggling to strike balance’

King’s Fund senior policy adviser Helen McKenna said: ‘Rising demand for health care coupled with newer, more expensive treatments and an unprecedented funding squeeze means the NHS is now struggling to strike a balance between the competing priorities of access, innovation and affordability.

'It is important to tackle inappropriate prescribing and the overuse of medicines, especially antibiotics.

‘With the choices facing policy-makers becoming more difficult, there is a risk of returning to the 1990s, when funding pressures led to widespread concern about the erosion of patients' access to medicines.'

The highest spend growth has been in the hospital sector – representing around half of the total amount of the NHS drug bill – with estimated costs growing at around 12% a year since 2010/11.

Spending growth was lower in primary care than in hospitals – resulting in a 25% reduction in the average prescription item costs – despite more than one billion items such as statins and anti-depressants dispensed in 2016 alone, according to the report.

More patients treated

The King’s Fund argued that the growth is likely to be linked to the increasing number of patients treated and expensive new treatments.

Commenting on the findings, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) commercial policy director Dr Richard Torbett said that the spend on these medicines – including those for hepatitis C, HIV prevention and cancer – has actually ‘fallen in real terms in the past five years’.

He added: ‘The vast majority of new hospital medicines […] are part of a scheme, which caps the amount the NHS spends on medicines, so any suggestion that they are causing an uncontrollable rise in costs is not accurate.

‘As the report shows, any increase in spending is largely due to the NHS treating more patients with highly effective, older and cheaper medicines, like statins.’

The full report can be found here.