The National Health Service racked up savings of nearly £400 million in 2008 by substituting costly branded drugs with cheaper copycat versions, according to a new report by the National Audit Office.

In 2007, the NAO published a hard-hitting report that stressed the health service is wasting millions of pounds on expensive branded medicines when cheaper generic versions could in many cases be used instead.

It claimed that as much as £200 million a year could be saved through more efficient prescribing by GPs, and that these savings could be achieved without any detrimental effects to patient care while helping to reign in the spiralling drugs bill.

And now, an analysis for the Office by Keele University has concluded that last year Primary Care Trusts in England achieved savings of £394 million by switching to lower cost generic forms of treatments for common conditions such as high blood pressure and, in particular, high cholesterol.

Increasing demand
According to Michael Whitehouse, the NAO’s assistant auditor-general, the findings demonstrate the extent to which switching to medicines that are cheaper but just effective can lead to real savings for the health service. And this, he adds, is “all the more important as the NHS’ spending on medicines continues to rise year on year, as the UK’s population ages and more and better treatments become available”.

Michael notes that the money saved can be channelled straight back into improving the quality of patient care. But others have in the past warned that the growing drive to garner savings could end up overshadowing patient needs, and that doctors must not be inhibited from prescribing new medicines endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence because of cash pressures.