War of words over stats between top doctor and Department of Health

A war of words has broken out between the Department of Health and one of Britain's most respected clinicians, over allegations that press officers are twisting statistics in what is tantamount to lying.

Professor David Oliver has accused the government of manipulating data to suit its own ends
Professor David Oliver has accused the government of manipulating data to suit its own ends

Professor David Oliver, vice president of the Royal College of Physicians, has accused government press offices of manipulating data to suit their own ends.

Referring to "government department public relations teams" among others, he accused them of "partially selecting or wilfully misrepresenting data — until the soundbites and assertions, cobbled together from factoids, enter the public consciousness as received gospel."

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Oliver, a NHS consultant in geriatrics and general internal medicine at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, commented: "People on all sides pump out inaccurate or partial information to justify their cause."

He added: "For instance, the government said last October that the NHS would receive an additional £10bn by 2020, but the King's Fund showed that the additional funding is only around £4.5bn.

"Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, also erroneously claimed that the NHS had received the sixth biggest funding increase in its history. Similar examples abound."

His remarks, first published at the end of last month, include a call for a statutory Independent Office for Health and Care Statistics.

The clinician argued: "If we could agree that the data were indeed the data, then we could move on to the legitimate, big questions of health policy debate rather than using partial or specious numbers to kill them."

This is not the first time that the government has come under scrutiny over its use of health statistics.

In December 2012 health secretary Jeremy Hunt was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming NHS spending was increasing in real terms when it had in fact appeared to have fallen.

And last November the UK Statistics Authority asked the Treasury to overhaul how government spending on the NHS and health is presented in order to minimise the risk of "confusion" about the size of budget rises.

Responding to the allegations by Professor Oliver, a DoH spokesperson told PRWeek: "There are many sources of data for health and social care and also many interpretations.

"However, as civil servants, we take very seriously our use of any official statistics, which are covered by a rigorous code of practice to ensure neutrality and are published independent of the Department."

A spokesperson for NHS England said: "A calling for a statutory Independent Office for Health and Care Statistics would be a decision made by government."

They declined to comment on Professor Oliver's wider remarks.


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