One in three bowel cancer patients in the UK could benefit from treatments not funded by the National Health Service, but doctors claim they need better guidance on how to best address the issue, a survey of oncologists commissioned by Beating Bowel Cancer has found.

The research revealed that many clinicians feel there is a lack of support on how to deal with access to therapies not endorsed by the UK’s cost effectiveness watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and nearly two-thirds of doctors surveyed felt discussing the cost of treatment should not be part of a their role.

Moreover, nearly all respondents claimed there was no protocol in place at their hospital for talking to patients about topping up care with potentially beneficial therapies not funded by the NHS, and 75% expressed the need for clearer guidance on the issue.

“Clinicians need a clearer steer both nationally and locally about how we broach the very sensitive issue of accessing drugs not routinely available on the NHS,” stressed Dr Mark Saunders, Consultant Clinical Oncologist at the Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and member of Beating Bowel Cancer’s medical board. “Since the government has now given the green light to top-ups…discussing cost versus benefit is something that many clinicians feel ill at ease with, and consultation times are simply inadequate for these sorts of conversations,” he added.

And Hilary Whittaker, Chief Executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, said it is “worrying” that many bowel cancer patients “might not be getting the full picture when it comes to their treatment options, mainly because doctors feel uncomfortable discussing cost”.

In light of the findings, Beating Bowel Cancer has called on the government to “urgently put in place measures to improve support for clinicians”, through longer appointment times, more NHS training and ensuring the implementation of national guidance and local protocols.

Just last week the Department of Health published new general guidance to add some clarity to the murky issue of topping up NHS care, which was given the green light in November last year to help facilitate patient access to a greater range of more expensive therapies.

The guidance stresses that patients should not lose their entitlement to NHS care as a result of choosing to buy additional private care, and that any private care must be “delivered separately” from that provided by the NHS.