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Leading Article: Can we trust NHS figures?

IT IS hardly surprising, given the Government's current reputation for `''managing news'', that it has been accused of a cover-up over a National Patient Safety Agency pilot study showing 20,000 ``adverse incidents'' at just 28 NHS hospitals over a six-month period.

In this case, though, the accusation is harsh. With such an emotive subject as NHS mistakes, it is important the figures are absolutely reliable, and clearly the Agency does not believe this to be the case.

This is only a pilot study with hospitals providing their own information, and there seem to be genuine fears that there is insufficient detail to draw conclusions.

There have already been several instances of hospitals being wrongly castigated by statistics that only tell part of the story. And not only does that hit patient confidence, but it can have a devastating effect on the morale of hard-pressed NHS staff.

The level of errors in the initial reported figures may seem extraordinarily high, though one of the reasons why there is some doubt over them is that, in fact, the number of reported incidents is fewer than international studies would suggest for comparable health care systems.

People do make mistakes, and probably in any organisation there would be a similar level, though in few cases would the lapses be life-threatening as a very small number will be in the NHS.

Many of the errors reported were ``very minor'', according to Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, and involved no risk at all to patients. Nonetheless, the fact they are being recorded will lessen the chances of them being repeated.

The setting-up of the National Patient Safety Agency was a positive move. It aims to collect and analyse details of errors in the NHS, and to circulate them so that not only the hospital concerned can learn lessons.

It is a way of identifying and spreading ``best practice'' in an organisation that in many ways is reluctant to change.

But of course, above all else, patient safety is paramount and attention must be drawn to any pattern of errors in hospitals that is putting that at risk. That is why the role of the Agency is such an important one.

The Department of Health must in future ensure that the figures are properly collected and then published without any interference from Government ministers.
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jun 19, 2002
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