The health service has taken a brave step on the quality road this week with the publication of the names of trusts over the last two years where unusually high death rates triggered alerts with the regulator.

The Care Quality Commission revealed that 85 alerts had been looked into since 2007.

Only eight required an action plan; common explanations for the remainder included data errors, poor coding and high risk caseloads. Others had already improved their clinical standards.

The risks with such candour are significant. The alerts are based on the same information from the Dr Foster Unit at Imperial College which exposed the appalling standards of care at Mid Staffordshire. As you read this there will be a local newspaper somewhere writing a scaremongering story bracketing their local hospital - guilty of nothing more than sloppy coding - with Mid Staffs.

Critics can argue that publication exposes hospitals to reputational damage for making simple bureaucratic errors, that the data is not robust enough to be used as a proxy for care standards, or that the public will be panicked by information they do not have the knowledge to interpret.

But openness is part of the painful process of improving accountability and driving up standards. Death rates, for all the imperfections of the data and the difficulties of comparison, shine an intense light on clinical quality. Mid Staffordshire now publishes its mortality rates on its website.

Getting this information into the open gives managers more leverage in drilling down on issues of clinical quality.

The public, meanwhile, has a right to know what is happening in the hospitals they are paying for, and their scrutiny, however imperfect, will focus minds on standards of care.

Quality accounts will be the next step - no doubt providing yet another crop of trusts learning a harsh lesson about the dangers of poor data collection.

But the short term irritations for managers of overseeing the production of yet more figures must not distract from the essential truth that a healthcare system which buries data ends up burying more patients.

High death rates or just more data headaches: it’s no contest