Good commissioning relies on solid statistics, so the consultation on Office of National Statistics’ possible cuts undoubtedly affects those in public health making long term decisions, says Woody Caan
Most HSJ readers have probably been affected by recent spending reviews and the requirement to make annual savings. We take official statistics for granted and it comes as a surprise if the routine numbers cease to be available.
Spare a thought then for the Office for National Statistics, which must now save another £9 million. The office issues about 650 products a year, many of which are statutory requirements such as births, deaths and marriages.
‘Just as a jumbo jet needs radar to land safely in a snowstorm, it is when health policy is at its most stormy that one values seeing the local terrain ahead’
Part of this year’s savings must come from their ceasing some of their non-statutory outputs. They are currently holding a consultation on which outputs to cut that finishes on 31 October. At a recent Statistics Users Forum hosted by the Royal Statistical Society, key ONS staff were present. They were genuinely open about wanting feedback, which they will heed: 500 organisations from all areas have already expressed an interest in this consultation.
Does it matter to the NHS? Well, at risk are continuing ONS reports on lifestyle, or household surveys and measures of poverty or health inequalities. I used to take it for granted that numbers on people smoking or drinking alcohol were available somewhere for my region: these depend on the ONS collating and reporting them.
Joined up commissioning needs reliable patterns of health statistics by space and time. Just as a jumbo jet needs radar to land safely in a snowstorm, it is when health policy is at its most stormy that one values seeing the local terrain ahead.
I advise my region, Cambridgeshire, on alcohol problems and without knowing the trends in drinking we could make big mistakes in planning for future accident and emergency attendances, deaths from liver disease or “revolving door” psychiatric admissions.
‘There is only one national asset that keeps track of many different statistics and makes them available to users free, the ONS’
The late David Barker showed that babies with low birth weight were more prone to a bunch of chronic health problems in adulthood. The crude number of births will still be collated, but not only do health service planners need to know how many are small, the statistics can only be interpreted with parallel population data on the ethnicity, housing and birthplace of new mothers.
There is only one national asset that keeps track of many different statistics and makes them available to users free, the ONS. Try getting Tesco to tell your CCG about sales and customers for nappies.
Power of statistics
The ONS will continue to conduct a census, but it now aims to meet this statutory duty more cheaply. It is consulting about this too, under the heading Beyond 2011. Recently HSJ found that CCGs’ top priority is commissioning for long term conditions. Such commissioning depends on reliable census data and the way ONS collects it will determine the accuracy.
Ageing is the key predictor of long term conditions. The power of national statistics is that the local population of older people can be linked to valuable information about whether they are living alone, have personal transport, once worked in high risk occupations or live in a neighbourhood trapped by fear of crime. It is such added value that makes ONS so useful to public health.
I am indebted to a public health friend in Cambridgeshire County Council for her advice that we should all try a basic information impact assessment: what do we really need to know to do our jobs? HSJ readers can indicate the most useful numbers for their own services here, or email enquiries about the process to email@example.com
Woody Caan is a professorial fellow at the Royal Society for Public Health