Another meaningless statistic

The media in this country is fascinated by reporting on events that on the face of it look shocking but which are difficult to put into context.  No doubt these sell newspapers or increase viewing figures and so make it worth their while.

Today there has been a story about the number of people that are discharged from hospital between the hours of 11 in the evening and 6 in the morning.  Apparently this is just under 240,000 for last year or around 3.5% of all patient discharges.  Are you shocked?  Are you thinking about all of the sick and old people kicked out of hospital in their blood stained night gowns in the pitch dark with sleet and snow whirling around their slippered feet?  Perhaps but this figure has been fairly constant for the last five years and so why is it news now when it wasn’t four years ago? 

Freedom of information (FOI) has helped to get this kind of detail into the public domain and the media often use the legislation to go on fishing trips to find out something interesting and newsworthy but out of context this statistic has little meaning.  This becomes even more so when you find out that hospitals gather and record the data in very different ways.  Some include accident and emergency while others don’t.  Others include people who have died in the night which is a surprise as I didn’t think you could discharge dead people.

There could be so many reasons why patients are being discharged throughout the night, such as:

  • People who have died (already mentioned)
  • People who have passed through A&E in this period and have been patched up
  • People who have discharged themselves and walked out of the hospital
  • People who have been moved to other treatment centres
  • People who work nights and, feeling better, want to get back to their jobs.

Spokes people from the NHS and politicians have been leaping to the defence of the figures and have been suggesting possible explanations in ways that seem to be very off the cuff and on the back foot.  This need not be so as there may well be very genuine reasons as to why the number is as it is.   After all is a 3.5% patient discharge rate in a period equivalent to over 29% of the day acceptable or not?  At this point who can tell?

To make head or tail of this news, further analysis is required to see if there is any pattern to the patient discharges, for example is the flow of patients constant between 11 and 6 or is their a peak just after 11, or just before 6?  Do hospitals have different policies about discharges or different shift patterns, or different discharge procedures all of which may skew these figures?

Without a fuller understanding of the true picture and an explanation of the root causes and context this type of story is sensationalist and only leads to trouble.  Don’t fall into the trap.

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