The Conservatives have pledged to overhaul the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), shortening the time it takes to approve the use of treatments on the National Health Service (NHS) to between three and six months from 18 months at present.

Too often, NICE is given “as an excuse for delay” to NHS patients, who get slower access to new life-enhancing and life-extending drugs than any other major European country, said Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

To speed patients’ access to new medicines, the Tories’ plan to “transform the duties and responsibilities” of NICE would also take politicians out of the process of recommending new treatments for referral to the Institute – this, they say, would save at least three months.

Their proposals also include: - allowing NICE to begin its assessment as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) begins Phase Three of its trials; - introducing a new system of value-based pricing, while supporting risk-sharing deals with drug companies, meaning that all new clinically-effective medicines should be available for clinicians to prescribe; - allowing NICE to take account of the wider social cost of denying a drug to patients when assessing its value or benefit; - shifting the decision-making power over the supply of new drugs from NICE to “front-line” doctors; - shifting the burden of proof of new drugs’ effectiveness from NICE to the manufacturer, which will have to prove that it works, rather than NICE proving that it does not; - giving NICE a statutory basis with a written charter, outlining clearly its roles and responsibilities; - setting up a steering committee, comprising the pharmaceutical industry and NICE representatives, to promote dialogue and understanding between the two.

“In 1999, when it established NICE, Labour said it would abolish the postcode lottery in health care, but they have not succeeded. What we need to do is arrive at a point where doctors are in a position to be able to make these decisions for their patients and are actually able to provide the care that is right for them,” said Mr Lansley.

- Health Secretary Alan Johnson is due this week to announce plans to abolish the ban on NHS patients topping-up their NHS treatment with privately-purchased drugs without forfeiting their basic package of Service care. The proposals are widely expected to include moves to speed NICE’s procedures, and widen the terms under which it assesses a drug’s benefits, in order to increase the range of drugs available to patients without having to buy them privately.

NICE Chairman Sir Michael Rawlins will be giving a presentation on Post Code Prescribing, access and uptake of innovative medicines at the PharmaTimes Pharmaceutical Directors Club in London on Thursday 6 November.