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Drug policy: making effective drugs available without bankrupting the healthcare system


To the extent possible, drug policy should be based upon good quality evidence. This must extend beyond the traditional focus on efficacy and safety in carefully selected patients, to evidence about real-world effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and safety of drugs. This paper will consider methods of improving the quality of the evidence currently available, and the implications of requiring that evidence.

Historically, there has been a direct link between research evidence and policy at the level of licensing – drugs are only made available after they have been shown to be safe and efficacious in well-designed and independently assessed research studies. We propose that this reliance on evidence be logically extended to cover the formulary inclusion and post-marketing surveillance aspects of modern prescription drug policy.

More specifically we propose that the decision to initially list a drug on a benefit formulary be based on evidence from relevant head-to-head comparisons and well-designed cost-effectiveness analyses. This evidence would be produced by industry in cooperation with independent peer-reviewed funding agencies. Drugs could only be added to a formulary if they met specific predetermined criteria, and drugs could be removed as superior alternatives became available.

The provincial governments are monopsony buyers of medicines, and they wield the power to determine public payer "market access" for medicines. This power (within and across provinces) could be used more effectively to negotiate price in the context of reimbursement.

The effect of different methods of influencing prescribing (e.g.,"limited access") upon drug utilization and patient outcomes should be rigorously assessed, including the randomization of groups of patients or communities to different strategies.

We also propose that all drugs on the formulary would be subject to a well-designed post-marketing surveillance program. This program would build on the existing passive reporting of adverse events by adding a proactive system that would systematically describe the use and impact of drugs. The notion of drug safety would be extended to include not only adverse events, but also inappropriate use of drugs that results in patients receiving drugs that do not benefit them. Inappropriate use wastes resources and can put patients and populations at risk.



Laupacis A, Anderson G, O'Brien B. Healthc Pap. 2002; 3(1):12-30.

Contributing ICES Scientists