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Think of a number ...

Health Secretary Alan Milburn was asked earlier this month if the NHS was moving forwards or backward.

Needless to say, his answer was ‘forwards’ – but some of the statistics he used to back this up should have given pause for thought. Take the question of pharmaceuticals. Milburn proudly trumpeted that prescriptions rose by 11% last year and 13% this year – which certainly proves that GPs are shelling out more drugs, that pharmaceutical companies are happier and that chemists are busier. But does it prove the NHS is moving anywhere like forwards?

Doctors will tell you that many patients need more drugs like a hole in the head, and that nearly all drugs have side-effects, often requiring more drugs to put them right – so it’s often better to dissuade patients from an easy prescription. But it is time-consuming.

So are doctors taking the easy way out? If he’d thought about it, Milburn might have realised that prescriptions up 13% actually measures the pressure doctors are under, or the extent to which drug company marketing has persuaded us that everything is best cured by a little pill.

  • David Boyle is the author of The Tyranny of Numbers (Flamingo) and The Money (Earth Scan).

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