UK Liberty

On statistics and context

Posted in accountability by ukliberty on November 12, 2007

Tony Collins of Computer Weekly writes of statistics,

…statistics in support of claims that the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] is a success are almost as meaningless [as a claim that “61,778 new traffic lights have been installed”].

Angela Eagle [Health Minister] told Parliament:

“Without the [NPfIT] programme, the NHS could no longer function, and it is already providing essential services and significant benefits to tens of thousands of clinicians and millions of patients. It is therefore a success story that ought to be acknowledged.“For example, more than 5.5 million appointments have now been made using the choose and book system, representing 44 per cent of first referrals. In addition, 397 million diagnostic images are now stored centrally, and 42 million electronic prescriptions have been used in a service that is now available in 41 per cent of pharmacies and 47 per cent of GP surgeries.

“Nearly 400,000 users are registered to use the NHS care records spine, with 45,000 NHS staff accessing it daily….”

If statistics were quoted with frankness and context, they could mean a little more.

Of course, they aren’t particularly interested in us knowing what the statistics mean – their motivation is one of persuasion, not information, they are trying to impress us and win us over.

For example, they might say

Over 85% of all GP practices have used Choose and Book to refer their patients to hospital

Very impressive at first glance, isn’t it?  But what does it mean?  Some of the practices might have used it only once, or very infrequently.  Of course, 85% might use it all the time.  But without the context how do we know?

So I think it’s important to look beyond these eye-catching numbers, realise the primary motivation here, and ask for the context.

My article on rape statistics might be of interest, as well as Anthony’s response.


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