Dr David Crichton’s blog: Why pay extra for gluten-free items?

This is a transcript of my My View column that was published in the Doncaster Star on Monday 17 April, 2017

The Department of Health has launched a national consultation to review if gluten-free foods should continue to be available on prescription from your GP surgery.

Gluten is found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye and includes; bread, pasta, cakes and beer. Gluten-free foods are advised for people who have been diagnosed with medical conditions such as  Coeliac disease or Dermatitis Herpetiformis.

Coeliac disease is a relatively common digestive condition affecting around one in every 100 people, and Herpetiformis is a rarer type of skin rash, both of which should improve considerably when you remove gluten from your diet. These are important conditions as complications include poor growth in children, anaemia and long term may affect bone strength and ability to absorb nutrients.

The NHS started introducing gluten-free prescriptions in the 1960s when there were very few substitute products available. But a wide range of gluten-free products are now readily available in supermarkets and high street stores, giving people more choice of the foods they  need without a prescription.

It costs the NHS nearly £26 million a year in prescription charges to pay for gluten-free foods, including nearly £210,000 in  Doncaster.

As part of the consultation information, the Department of Health has published a list of food cost comparisons. For example, a pack of gluten-free pasta, costing £1.57 if bought over the counter in a local shop, would cost the NHS £6.73 for the same product if it was purchased on prescription. Similarly, a pack of gluten-free plain flour on prescription would cost the NHS £3.10, but £1.62 if it was bought as part of someone’s weekly supermarket shop. I can’t be the only one to think that this does not make sense?

In 2015, across the country nearly 845,000 prescriptions were made for gluten-free bread costing the NHS nearly £17 million.

There are many options available to patients to help maintain a gluten-free diet, including eating foods that are naturally gluten-free, such as; meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, rice and most dairy products. We can gain most of our dietary needs from these foods without needing gluten-free equivalents.

Gluten-free produce – including biscuits and cakes – will continue to be available in shops where they can easily be bought and can supplement our essential diet as a special treat.

Importantly, anyone who is intolerant to gluten can get advice from their high street pharmacist, GP practice, or dietitian. A review from time to time is advised to ensure any health complications arising from coeliac disease can be identified and treated.

It’s important that you have your say in this national consultation which is basically asking three questions: should gluten-free products continue to be prescribed at GP surgeries?; should they be restricted to certain foods, and if so, which?; and, should the range of bread products available on prescription be limited?

To have your say, please go to https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/availability-of-gluten-free-foods-on-nhs-prescription  The consultation ends on 22 June, 2017.

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