Thursday, 14 July 2011

Facts are stubborn things but statistics are more pliable (Mark Twain)

I’ve always been a bit of a fan of statistics. It may be due to a love of maths from an early age or my pharmacy training where accuracy and precision can be literally a matter of life or death. I often use stats as part of a presentation or business case and find them a very useful way to emphasise a point.

But I am feeling increasingly bewildered with the plethora of public health warnings and disease-specific numbers published on a daily basis. I sometimes wonder if each health related charity or government department is engaging in an unspoken competition to see who can scare the public most severely in order to raise funds or win extra budget allocation for their particular cause.

This may sound harsh – and I would certainly not presume to undermine the fantastic work undertaken by healthcare charities. Thanks to clinical trials funded by Cancer Research UK, my late husband was given an additional three precious years of life. And charities such as Alzheimers Society, Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation have achieved a great deal in raising awareness and improving treatment and prevention.

But what should we do with all these statistics? The most recent press release by Macmillan Cancer Support states that four in 10 people will get cancer at some point in their lives. Despite the increasing cure rates for many forms of the disease, this statistic is still shocking and frightening for many. As the charity states – this poses a ‘massive challenge for the NHS’

The figure is based on estimations of death rates, past incidence and analysis of lifestyle trends. This is purely a projection and only time will tell if this prediction is accurate. We can certainly assume that with improved prevention, detection, and treatment regimes, many of these cases will be either completely curable or at least manageable as a chronic condition.

We have also been faced with the fact that 40% of adults are obese, 5% of the population are diabetic (expected to rise dramatically) between 30 and 40% of men and women will have heart disease and to cap it all, because many of us are going to live longer (despite all these diseases) – 1 million in the UK will be suffering from dementia in the next decade.

And so health organisations will continue to share their facts and figures. They hope that the general public will be scared into adopting healthier lifestyles and support research and public health initiatives.

Whatever you take from these statistics, there can be no doubt that the need for immense funding and robust management of the NHS will continue to stretch the national pocket.

In the meantime I think this quotation from Professor Aaron Levenstein sums the dilemma up beautifully:

‘Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.’ 


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