A new study from Swedish health economists has yet again shown the UK is bottom of the class when it comes to providing patients with access to cancer drugs, particularly the expensive newer ones.

Nils Wilking and Bengt Jonsson of the Stockholm School of Economics published a poster at this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Orlando comparing access to cancer drugs in the five major European economies – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – over the decade 1998 to 2008 based on IMS data.

The two economists said the per capita spending on cancer drugs was highest in France and lowest in the UK with the other three at a roughly similar level in-between. "The very low use of new drugs in Great Britain is noticeable” they comment. Differences in cancer drug use reflect health care system factors rather than evidence on the outcome of the therapies, they add.

Cancer care and its outcome in terms of patient survival is not just about access to cancer drugs but "expected survival for cancer patients have been lower in Great Britain compared to other western European countries", they note.

The UK is also dragging its feet in some cancer areas with access to surgery. “Lung cancer patients tend to present at a similar stage in all of the countries but the surgical rate in the UK is about half that of countries such as Sweden even when cancers are operable,” the economists said

While use of all cancer drugs and mature drugs have increased in the UK, the margin between the UK and the other countries is substantial and contrasts markedly with the pattern of use in France. Uptake of newer cancer therapies shows almost a flat line for the UK on the graph.

“The curves for the UK on drug use are slowly creeping up but they still lag well behind those of other countries. It will be interesting to see how UK drug use correlates with cancer outcomes in the next Eurocare and Globalcan surveys due over the next couple of years,” said Wilking. The link between cancer drug access and survival is disputed by some but there is a correlation, he believes.