Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Lies, half-truths and dodgy statistics: NHS

Part of a series on the many lies and exaggerations used by politicians and the media which are backed up by very questionable statistics.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." So goes the quote popularised by Mark Twain, his phrase describing just how easy it is to twist any statistic you can find to suit your given belief. I would add another and qualify two of them, there are actually four types of lies: lies, repeated lies, exaggerated half-truths, and misused statistics.

I bring up this now in light of abuses of supposed 'facts' by Number 10, which have very real consequences for us if they are allowed to go unchallenged.

The misuse of statistics in relation to the NHS is the most dangerous of all, these are the 'facts' which are being used to persuade the public at large of the need for reform. Many of them appear in a new leaflet issued by Number 10 and are reproduced by the Department of Health, entitled 'Working together for a stronger NHS'. The facts it uses are not difficult to debunk, but the issue is that many people will read the leaflet and never be exposed to the arguments as to why it is factually incorrect.

The leaflet starts with a series of statements about the rising age of the population, the rising cost of medicines and so forth which are in fact true, though they do not directly support these particular reforms, merely reform in general. It takes a massive logical leap to go from 1) We need reform, + 2) These are reforms, = 3)We need these reforms. It is a fallacy of necessity.

But on with the leaflet. We soon get away from these truths and into very questionable areas indeed, with a whole page devoted to this devastating fact:

"If the NHS was performing at truly world-class levels we would save an extra 5,000 lives from cancer every year."

If that doesn't convince you we need change, what will? Well, it might be a devastating argument if it had any real basis in fact. The source they use to make this claim comes from the British Journal of Cancer, and was published in December 2009. So it comes from a reputable source and is recent, what could possibly be wrong then? The issue here is that the government has used research which was never intended to predict current rates and possible future improvements, the data covers the period from 1985 to 1999. The very latest data included was from 12 years ago!

Since that time the NHS has improved massively, with the NHS Cancer Plan in 2000 having massive impacts. It may be frustrating for politicians trying to make a point, but health data simply does not fit into their ideal of being immediately available for analysis and scrutiny. There are complex epidemiological factors at play, to the point that even studies which they use from late 2009 have to analyse data that is massively out of date. This is why changes in the health service, even if they were desirable, should never be implemented at this speed, it allows no time for scrutiny of impact and could well be harmful.

Other such lies have been dealt with by Ben Goldacre in this article and I shan't waste any more space here going over them again.

Needless to say, it seems very dishonest of the government to deceive people in this way, but what can be done to stop it? John Majors abuse of statistics led to the formation of the Office for National Statistics, perhaps it is time the NHS had its own independent statistics, to stop it being used as a political football.

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