8. June 2012 14:41
Amidst the confusion over what is happening to the NHS, it’s nice to have a dramatic headline to hold onto. But as Maxine Vaccine observes, the clearest messages are not always the most reliable.
At the end of May, the headline ‘A&E waiting times hit eight-year high’ – or various forms of it – appeared across the UK media. From Sky News online to The Independent, it was the NHS story of the week. After all, it had a reliable source: a study by the UK’s best-respected health think tank, the King’s Fund.
Or did it?
Not only do newspapers and sites often sensationalise the news on health issues, they are often primed to do so by sources old enough to know better. Some proper research takes place, but then a press release gets out that isn’t saying quite the same thing. The recent King’s Fund report ‘How is the NHS performing?’ provides a striking example.
Firstly, the press release on the King’s Fund website had a headline starting ‘A&E waiting times hit eight-year high ’. But the report itself refers to the total amount of time spent by patients in A&E. The increase in time spent in A&E no doubt correlates with an increase in waiting times, but the ambiguity of the press release’s wording was designed to grab headlines – as it did.
It also earned the King’s Fund a sharp rap on the knuckles from Andrew Lansley. He’s a former public schoolboy: when he raps knuckles, they stay rapped. What made an expert research organisation lay itself wide open?
The same press release declared that “the report also found that 40 per cent of NHS organisations failed to meet productivity targets in 2011/12.” No, it didn’t. The report stated that 7 out of 23 NHS finance directors who responded to a KF survey said they were not confident of meeting their productivity targets. It also said clearly that these numbers were “not statistically representative” as the sample is far too small.
Why did the King’s Fund put an attention-grabbing press release on its website that didn’t correctly represent its own research? Because think tanks need the fish food of publicity – and that’s just as true for an ‘independent expert body’ as for one (like Reform) that is simply a lobbying firm. If you’re not on the front page, you are bearing the cross of obscurity up the steep hill of epic fail with no prospect of resurrection.
So the moral is: don’t believe the headlines. If you want to know what’s happening with the NHS, go direct to whatever source the media may be misquoting at you. And for a head start, take a look at some reliable and sensible digest of NHS news. There might be one nearer to hand than you think.