I NEED to start with a deep breath.
The statistics arm of NHS Scotland published 21 separate data files on one morning this week. Among them were death rates in Scottish hospitals (47 pages), performance against waiting times targets (three files, equating to more than 100 pages), access to psychological help for children and adults and insight into how much health boards are doing to help overweight school pupils. These and most of the other documents were all important topics which warranted proper scrutiny. Knowing this, the Scottish Government decided to publish health boards workforce plans on its own website the same morning - documents which in the past have revealed hundreds of nursing jobs were being axed and this year, that more nurses are being hired.
The hospital mortality rates alone, given they exposed an increase in deaths last winter and sparked an independent patient safety probe in Lanarkshire, deserved a day of interrogation.
Releasing a raft of health statistics on completely different but high-profile topics all on one day is not new, but nor was it ever thus. I remember it starting because I wrote to the Health Secretary of the time requesting a rethink given the need for the Scottish Government to be transparent and the logistical difficulty of the media in particular reading, understanding and reporting on so many health subjects on one day. I got nowhere. Those like myself who cover health in Scotland now talk about "stats Tuesdays" when we attempt to analyse a ludicrous amount of data in order to hold MSPs to account. In my experience, if you ask anyone in the Government or the statistics arms of NHS Scotland (ISD), which publishes the data, about the practice, they blame someone else.
Tuesday this week was the worst stats Tuesday I can remember. I am sorry I was unable to give access to mental health services or waiting times for hospital appointments the attention they deserve. For the record more than 1.5% of patients are still missing out on the SNP's legally-binding waiting time guarantee, legal binding apparently not being quite as tight as one might have thought.
Of course the data is still on the web today, so I can continue to examine it. Given the scandal of patients being erroneously marked socially unavailable for treatment, to make the stats look better, I revisited the waiting list files. However, I had to phone ISD to ask where the figures for social unavailability were kept. I was told ISD does not collect this information for the 18-week referral to treatment target. See why this data ought not be chucked out in a great big bundle? It needs research to ensure as far as possible that patients and voters are not cheated. The Scottish Government should not be afraid of that. While it persists in ramming so much together it can be accused of trying to obscure the truth, even if it is not.
Grouping data for public release on one day is clearly not so ISD staff can make themselves available to answer queries. Generally their statisticians are friendly and professional, but this Tuesday, I could not get hold of them.
In the past lists of forthcoming data releases were posted on the ISD website and they were sensibly spread over time. I can think of no good reason why this system should not return.
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