A 3rd class speech from a 3rd class health secretary?

This article originally appeared on westminsterwatchmen.wordpress.com as part of an academic assignment.

Most students would be expected to fact check their presentations. But what about government ministers?

Yesterday, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt made a speech containing the following claims, amongst others. Was the Health Secretary being dishonest, or just making mistakes?

‘Smoking rates are at an all-time low’

Technically this is true, though in a similar way that ‘Britain’s polio rates are at an all time low’ is true. As this table from a leading anti-smoking charity shows, smoking rates have been falling since 1974. This is due to public health campaigns convincing the public smoking is bad for you. Claiming low smoking rates as a success for Tory health policy seems a little bit of a stretch.

‘Teenage drinking is down”

As with smoking, this is true. It has also been falling for a while. Teenage drinking has been falling since 1988, and now 61% of school pupils have never had a single alcoholic drink. Whilst it is good teenage drinking has continued to fall under Jeremy Hunt’s watch, taking credit for it seems a little self-congratulatory.

‘There are 11,000 excess deaths every year because of what’s known as ‘the weekend effect’ in hospitals’

This is a recurring claim of Mr Hunt, published most recently in an interview in The Independent. There are a few problems with this claim. The study Hunt bases his claim off was published in the widely respected British Medical Journal and is available for free here.

The study looked at admissions from Friday to Monday, which I’m sure most people would like to be the weekend. Unfortunately the weekend doesn’t yet consist of four days.

The researchers didn’t look at deaths at the weekend, they looked at deaths in patients admitted at the weekend. Whilst it might seem a small difference, it actually makes a lot of difference. Doctors have argued less sick patients stay at home over the weekend and come in on Monday morning. As a result, the patients who are admitted at the weekend are on average sicker than those on a weekday, and doctors argue death rates are inevitably higher.

Possibly the most potent argument against Mr Hunt’s claim is that even the authors of the study don’t think it supports his claim. “It is not possible to ascertain the extent to which these excess deaths may be preventable; to assume that they are avoidable would be rash and misleading.”

“We are not seeking to reduce junior doctor pay.”

Quite frankly, this statement will be mystifying to many of the junior doctors who’ve taken to the streets angry at the government’s most recent contract proposals. This modelling shows doctors in acute specialities are going to earn less under new contract proposals. If you fancy becoming an anaesthetist, be prepared to earn £7,000 less than your colleagues in A&E despite the fact your patients are broadly similar and you work near-identical shift patterns.

David Edwards, a 3rd year medical student and aspiring A&E doctor, had this reaction to some of Hunt’s claims: “Ignorantly or even intentionally misrepresenting statistics in order to support his proposed policy changes is dishonest and calls into question his professional integrity.”

It will interesting to see whether the timing of the speech affects the upcoming meetings between the Department of Health and the BMA aimed at preventing strike action by junior doctors. If the past is anything to go by, such an error-laden speech will only serve to anger doctors more, and make Mr Hunt’s job a lot more difficult.



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