The Scottish government has issued new guidance to all health boards which will provide a uniform national policy on the introduction of newly-licensed medicines.

The guidance, issued yesterday to board chief executives across Scotland, will require them to follow the same procedure when considering whether to make drugs available on the National Health Service (NHS), regardless of where in Scotland a patient lives, and provide clearer and easier-to-follow policies for patients looking to access new medicines, says health officials.

The guidance covers all medicines, including drugs which have either not been approved or not yet considered by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC), and will apply wherever a clinician makes an individual request to a board for a drug not approved by the SMC to be used for a patient, known as “exceptional” prescribing. Health boards will also be expected to make their policies public and help patients through the process on request.

The move, which follows two years of collaboration between the Scottish government and the Parliamentary Public Petitions Committee, takes forward recommendations made by the panel following a petition from Tina McGeever, whose husband Mike Gray died of cancer in 2008.

Scotland already has “a very fair, rigorous and quick system for appraising NHS drugs,” and even when the SMC does not recommend a medicine for general use, patients can still get it on the NHS if their clinician believes it is appropriate and obtains permission from their local health board, said Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon.

“But what was clear from the extensive work we have done with Parliament’s Petitions Committee is that navigating the system is not always easy - particularly when patients and their loved ones are dealing with very difficult circumstances,” she added. “Today’s new guidance should change that. It not only makes explicit to health boards all that we expect them to do, but makes clear that they must be open and transparent about their processes and decisions. All boards will be expected to follow the same guidance, which will be adapted to meet local circumstances,” said Ms Sturgeon.

Frank McAveety, Convener of the Public Petitions Committee, welcomed the new guidance, and praised Ms McGeever’s contribution to improving the processes for accessing cancer drug treatments. “This welcome guidance from the Scottish government is the latest in a number of improvements she has brought about which will bring benefits to many,” he said.

In January 2008, Ms McGeever lodged Petition PE1108 with the Committee on behalf of Mr Gray, calling on Scotland’s Parliament to “urge the Scottish government to consider the provision, on the NHS, of cancer treatment drugs, in particular cetuximab [Merck KGaA’s Erbitux], to ensure equity across NHS boards on the appropriateness, effectiveness and availability of such treatments.”

The Committee then conducted an investigation inspired by Petition PE1108. Publishing its findings in June that year, it expressed serious concerns about procedures within health boards to assess whether a cancer patient can be exceptionally prescribed a non-NHS drug. The inquiry’s evidence sessions also revealed a lack of clarity and transparency, with information not being made available to patients at the crucial time of diagnosis, and that the procedure was perceived as not working in the best interests of the patient.

“When health professionals describe being placed in an ‘uncomfortable position’ or ‘a moral, ethical and logistical nightmare and minefield,’ then clearly the guidance is not doing what it should,” Mr McAveety said at the time.