Numbers to make your point

Posted on Fri 14 August 2009 in misc

I assume most people are aware of the recent furore over Daniel Hannan's appearance on Fox News where some fairly distorted views of the NHS where given. I'm not going to say the system is perfect but I certainly know which system I'd choose to be treated under. However I thought I'd confine my comments to some of the slides shown during the piece. My experience watching Fox news has always illuminating. Where as in the UK journalists tend to bend over backwards to ensure some degree of balance in the US partisan presentation seems to be standard. With this in mind it always pays to be sceptical of any "facts" that are presented.

The first slide which grabbed my eye was at 1 minute 36 seconds showing NHS waiting times. The slide is on for 5 seconds and you'd be forgiven for thinking they are up to date figures. The source is quoted as the BBC May 27, 2009 although the data is for 2004. It's interesting there are two dates on the slide which you may miss one given the short time it's up. I tried to find this reference on the BBC and in fact the 2009 reference is completely wrong, the data comes from this page also from 2004.

The next factiod under the "Prescription for Truth" banner doesn't seem to be sourced stating "23% of Australians wait for than 4 months for elective surgery". The best I could find that matched that were figures for 2001, perhaps some Australians more familiar with their government stats could point me towards some more current figures?

The next big slide discusses 5-year relative survival rates for prostate cancer. Here I'm a little less sure as I'm no expert on cancer. However the choice of Prostate Cancer is an interesting one affects the older population and is often so slow that people die of other things first. According to the slide the US has a 100% relative survival rate to our rather paltry looking 77%. According to the Wikipedia article relative survival rates is dependant on how many of the general population of the same age and sex are also survive. I'll happily accept help from my more stats trained friends here but it seems to me the lower life expectancy is the higher the relative survival rate for any condition that affects primarily the old will be. Having said that the UK (77.2) and the US (75.6)* don't seem to be that far apart in male life expectancy to explain the difference. The American Cancer Society page certainly backs up the 100% figure although I'm not sure what happens if you diagnosed but uninsured in the USA. The UK Cancer Research figures also backup the 77% figure. It's also interesting to note that the incidence rate is so much higher in the US, almost double in fact the incidence rate in the UK. At this point I decided to ask Wolfram Alpha what it knew about the US stats compared to the UK numbers. It finally told me that prostate cancer is the cause of 1.5% of deaths in the US compared to 1.8% in the UK. A much smaller difference than 100% vs 77% might lead you to believe.

It's been an interesting exercise digging into these numbers. For what it's worth I'm fairly convinced cancer is more aggressively screened and treated in the US if you have health insurance (after all it makes economic sense from the point of view of the insurance companies). However living in the UK I'm happy I'll never have to queue in a stadium for life saving treatment if medical insurance won't protect me.

* UN figures, via Wikipedia