IT is essential that the public has trust in government statistics.
Without meaningful statistics, no true assessment of public services is possible, performance cannot properly be measured and, crucially, underperformance cannot properly be tackled.
That is why Audit Scotland isright to announce a Scotland-wide inquiry into whether health boards are doctoring waiting times figures, following revelations of unacceptable practices at NHS Lothian.
Patients who refused to travel to England for treatment were simply removed from the 18-week waiting list in Lothian. Are the figures being massaged in other health board areas too, as Labour believes they are? Patients have a right to know. The NHS Lothian revelations have sown the seeds of doubt about the reliability of waiting times statistics and raised questions about how widespread the practice of manipulating the lists might be; therefore it is essential that a light is shone into the management processes at other health boards.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon, who ordered an investigation into NHS Lothian's manangement culture following the incident, has talked tough on the matter, yet she must now consider to what extent her Government's own stringent waiting-times targets might have contributed to the problem.
This is an embarrassing blight on what has otherwise been a good record on the subject by the SNP. Waiting times for hospital appointments following referral by GPs, for instance, have improved greatly, while 96.9% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer in the last three months of last year began their treatment within 62 days, meeting the Government target of 95% (though three health boards, including NHS Grampian, missed the target).
Targets, in times of plenty, have proved an effective driver of improvement.
Yet with health boards under a degree of financial pressure unprecedented in recent years, such unbending demands have become less easy to justify.
As Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, noted in The Herald on Wednesday, for all that the Scottish Government has "protected" the NHS budget, it has "effectively flatlined", while costs and demands continue to increase. In real terms, funds are being squeezed. Thousands of nursing posts have already been lost and tough choices are having to be made. Something, somewhere, must give.
How difficult it must be for NHS staff, who have worked so hard to improve services over recent years. Excessive waiting times for medical treatment used to be a grim badge of Britishness; not any more, and no-one wants to see the progress of the last few years reversed. There may be a case, however, for easing pressure for fast-paced improvements until the economy and funding for the NHS also improve, given that the only truly reliable method to ensure waiting times targets are met is to resource the embattled health service properly.
If that cannot happen, then unfortunately it makes practices like those uncovered in NHS Lothian all the more likely.
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