Free-of-charge medicine schemes in the NHS: a local and regional drug and therapeutic committee's experience

Simon O'callaghan, Robin Ferner, Andrew Barron, Katherine Saxby, Reecha Sofat

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Introduction: Free-of-charge (FoC) medicine schemes are increasingly available and allow access to investigational treatments outside clinical trials or in advance of licensing or NHS commissioning.

Method(s): We retrospectively reviewed FoC medicine schemes evaluated between 2013 and 2019 by a single NHS trust and a regional drug and therapeutics committee (DTC). The details of each locally reviewed FoC scheme, and any nationally available Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency Early Access to Medicines Scheme (MHRA EAMS) in the same period, were recorded and categorised.

Result(s): Most FoC schemes (95%) allowed access to medicines intended to address an unmet clinical need. Over 7 years, 90% were company-FoC schemes and 10% were MHRA EAMS that were locally reviewed. Phase 3 clinical trial data were available for 44% of FoC schemes, 37% had phase 2 data and 19% were supported only by phase 1 data, retrospective observational studies or preclinical data. Utilisation of company-FoC schemes increased on average by 50% per year, while MHRA EAMS schemes showed little growth.

Conclusion(s): Company-FoC medicine schemes are increasingly common. This may indicate a preference for pharmaceutical companies to independently co-ordinate schemes. Motivations for company-FoC schemes remain unclear and many provide access to treatments that are yet to be evaluated in appropriately conducted clinical trials, and whose efficacy and risk of harm remain uncertain. There is no standardisation of this practice and there is no regulatory oversight. Moreover, no standardised data collection framework is in place that could demonstrate the utility of such programmes in addressing unmet clinical need or to allow generation of further evidence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2571-2580
Number of pages10
JournalBritish Journal of Clinical Pharmacology
Issue number6
Early online date23 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • Free of charge schemes
  • access to healthcare
  • compassionate access schemes
  • drug and therapeutic committee
  • drug approval
  • early access schemes
  • evidence basedmedicine
  • expanded access schemes
  • health policy
  • medicine governance
  • service provision


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