Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Global health chiefs are to examine how a government watchdog decides which drugs should be available on the NHS.
The review by the World Health Organization follows a request from the watchdog, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.
Doubts were raised about the assessment methods used by the institute by MPs last year. They described its decision-making procedures as confusing and called for a "full scale review".
The WHO team, which comprises five international experts, is expected to publish its findings by the end of the summer.
The team will examine recent NICE rulings on a number of key drugs.
These include its decision to recommend the use of etanercept and infliximab for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and newer antipsychotic drugs for the treatment of schizophrenia.
The experts will also look at the U-turn which led NICE to recommend glivec, a powerful drug to fight leukaemia, after initially suggesting it should only be made available to certain patients.
The WHO team will be headed by Dr Suzanne Hill, a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
The five experts will make two visits to the institute's offices in London as part of the review, the first of which is scheduled to take place this week.
NICE has also announced plans to carry out its own review of how it decides which drugs should be available on the NHS.
Andrew Dillon, chief executive of NICE, said: "We are delighted that the World Health Organization have agreed to carry out an independent peer review of the institute's work.
"We welcome external review of our work as a means of helping us, where required, to improve the quality of our work."
Last year's report by the Commons health committee concluded that there was "considerable confusion" on how the NICE decides whether the health service can afford new treatments.
It called for the decision-making process to be made more transparent and for officials to take greater account of the impact treatments have on patients' quality of life.
NICE has been criticised in the past by charities and patient groups, which have accused it of banning or limiting the use of some drugs because they would cost the NHS too much money.
One of the biggest rows centred on its decision last year not to recommend that beta interferon and glatiramer are made available on the NHS.
These drugs are given to some patients with multiple sclerosis. However, they are very expensive and NICE ruled that the £50m needed to fund these drugs would be better off spent elsewhere.
That decision sparked uproar among patients and led ministers to set up a scheme to make the drugs available to certain patients.
Mike O'Donovan, chief executive of the MS Society, said it would eagerly await the results of both reviews.
"We shall await with interest the outcome of the WHO review and of NICE's
own review and, in particular, their assessments of the methodologies used
to develop guidance," he said.
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