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Government proposals to end gluten-free prescribing could save NHS over £25m a year

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The Department of Health is today (31st March 2017) launching a consultation seeking views on the prescribing of gluten-free foods, in a bid to save the NHS millions each year.

This follows on from NHS England’s announcement this week of new guidance on the prescription of low value items such as travel vaccines, painkillers, and gluten-free foods.

The consultation will consider ending the prescription of all gluten-free foods in primary care – with estimates suggesting this could save £25.7 million a year for the health service. An additional £10 million could be saved through patients no longer needing to attend GP appointments in order to get their gluten-free (GF) prescriptions.

Currently, staple gluten-free foods such as bread, flour and pasta are available on prescription to patients diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. Gluten-free foods have been given on prescription to these patients since the late 1960s when it was less easy to buy them.

But gluten-free foods are now sold in many supermarkets and a wider range of naturally GF food types are available. It’s therefore much easier now than it was in the 1960s for patients with gluten sensitivity to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Evidence from Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) has also shown that the NHS pays much more than the consumer for the same gluten-free products.

Health minister, Lord O’Shaughnessy said:

The NHS is one of the most efficient health services in the world, but we need to do more to ensure we get the best possible value for taxpayers’ money. Changing the way we prescribe gluten-free food could make an important contribution to saving the NHS millions of pounds a year.

Many Clinical Commissioning Groups have already stopped providing gluten free foods on prescription. Norwich and North Norfolk CCGs decided to end prescribing of GF foods, except in exceptional circumstances. Spend on gluten-free prescribing plummeted from £400,000 in 2015/16, to just £21,000, freeing up this money to be invested in other patient treatments.

Norfolk reported no negative feedback on the decision, with their patients saying they didn’t have any problems accessing gluten-free foods since the ceasing of prescriptions. The decision in Norfolk was also well received by GPs, and by members of the public, who were often surprised to hear that gluten-free food had ever been available on NHS prescription.

Differing approaches to prescribing GF foods has been creating variation across CCGs. We are consulting on a new, national approach, creating consistency in gluten-free prescribing across the country.

Julie Wood, Chief Executive of NHS Clinical Commissioners, has backed the decision, saying:

NHSCC welcomes the DH consultation on the provision of gluten-free products on NHS prescriptions.  It is right that we look at how we spend the NHS pound most effectively and efficiently to get the right outcome for patients, and of course we must take into account the views of patients and our population as we do that. Taking a look at this nationally will mean there is a consistent approach for patients and we can address some of the variation on how the NHS budget is spent.

NHS England have also supported the decision to consult.  A spokesperson said:

We agree that the time is right to consider this area of prescribing given the changes in the market for gluten-free foods, which are now readily available in supermarkets across the country, and in light of the need to ensure we spend every penny of NHS money wisely.

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