'Balancing act' needed on unproven cancer drugs - Health Minister David Clark

The Health Minister is wary of side-stepping Pharmac to buy newly developed cancer drugs, saying the current system delivers the best bang for taxpayers' bucks.

Visiting oncologist John Zalcberg of Australia told The AM Show earlier this week New Zealanders are missing out "every day of the week".

"Access to medicines in New Zealand has been good over past years, but with the explosion of new medicines coming... New Zealand is missing out."

He and others spoke on the topic at a parliamentary dinner on Wednesday night.

"They made the case for earlier access to some of these drugs with less evidence around them, because the evolution that's happening in drugs right now is sped up - there are new drugs coming onto the market all the time," Health Minister David Clark told The AM Show on Thursday.

Pharmac is the agency that decides which drugs to buy. Dr Clark says he doesn't want politicians "second-guessing the experts", because the existing model "provides more drugs for more New Zealanders for the same amount of money than anywhere else in the world".

And previous experiments in early access schemes haven't had the same impact.

"The advice I've had on the earlier UK early access drug scheme was that there would have been five times the health benefit if the money had just stayed in the NHS - because early access for some drugs means later access for other drugs, unless you've got an unlimited amount of money," said Dr Clark.

"Some of these drugs turn out not to be effective, others turn out to have side-effects."

The UK is currently trialling a different early access scheme which Dr Clark is keeping a close eye on.

"That scheme actually starts to balance some of the risk with drug companies I'm told, as to how those new drugs perform, and that seems a better way to go."

In the meantime, he says the Government's $8 billion injection into health over four years will provide better care for those who can't afford private healthcare.

"That's one of the main reasons we campaigned on putting more money into the health system - $8 billion more over the forecast period - because we knew our opponents wouldn't match it. It's a different worldview - we say that the public should have more access to healthcare through the public system."

Figure.nz health spending
Crown spending on health. Photo credit: Figure.nz

Government spending on health as a percentage of GDP has fallen in recent years, from 6.7 percent in 2010-11 to 6.1 percent last year, which Dr Clark says is "very unusual in the Western world".