DOCTORS who fear they may have to put the brakes on health spending because of the spiralling costs of drugs have launched an appeal aimed at North-East patients.

Thousands of leaflets are being distributed to practices in the Darlington area in a bid to head off a looming drug bill crisis.

If the move works, it could be copied by other primary care groups keen to reduce waste.

Unless Darlington Primary Care Group (PCG) can substantially cut its drugs bill, it may have to reduce the amount it spends on important health services, such as hip replacements and heart operations.

Darlington PCG is heading towards an overspend on its drugs budget, unlike the five other PCGs serving the County Durham population.

The leaflets urge patients who have repeat medication to think carefully before they tick all the boxes on their repeat prescription form.

"In Darlington alone, tens of thousands of pounds are wasted each year from repeat medication that is never taken by patients," said Dr David Russell, who practises in Orchard Road, Darlington.

"We don't want patients to do without medicines that they need, but we would like them to consider whether they actually need everything on the repeat prescription form," said Dr Russell.

"I don't want patients to feel that we are getting at them. There may be perfectly innocent explanations why people tick all the boxes, even if they don't necessarily need all the medicine," said Dr Russell.

Doctors regularly find unused medicines during visits to people's homes, he added.

No one knows why the drugs bill is higher in Darlington than in other parts of County Durham, but the reality is that spending on health services will have to be reduced to compensate for any over-spending on medicines.

The move was praised by Jim Smith, pharmaceuticals advisor to the Northern and Yorkshire NHS Executive.

"It seems a sensible and responsible move. While doctors will make sure people will get the drugs they need, they also need to know that it is not safe and not sensible to stockpile medicines at home," said Mr Smith.

The cost of producing the 40,000 leaflets has been covered by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals