PracticeAuditLies, damn lies and statistics …

Lies, damn lies and statistics ...

Departments of state love statistics. They trumpet them as proof of their success, apparently immune to understanding 'Goodhart's Law' - the maxim that numbers used for control will always be perverted.

This month, the Department of Health announced that the total number of patients waiting to be admitted to NHS hospitals in England decreased by 35,300 (3.4%) in the year from March 2002 – bringing the total satisfactorily below the million mark. The numbers are particularly interesting given the wide-ranging audit changes on the agenda for the new foundation hospitals.

What the figures do not show are the ‘hidden’ waiting lists to get on waiting lists. For out-patients, there is now a two-stage process to see a specialist: first to wait to get on the appointment list and then to wait for the actual appointment.

Nor do the figures reveal the other kinds of manipulation used to get the figures down – pushing easy appointments through quickly, at the expense of the ones that are long and difficult. The list goes down, but the pain doesn’t necessarily …

  • David Boyle, an associate of the New Economics Foundation and the author of The Tyranny of Numbers (Flamingo)

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