The public's hunger for details is an urgent reason to improve NHS data

Published: 14/03/2002, Volume II2, No. 5796 Page 19

At a time of far-reaching change, far-reaching decisions need to be made on sound evidence, which in the NHS's case means data on everything from waiting lists to the outcomes of surgical procedures and a vast tract of other information in between. In the words of the Audit Commission's health strategy director, data is 'a very important foundation for everything the NHS does'.

Acute awareness of the importance of good-quality data goes back at least to the time of the Körner exercise to define the NHS's information needs and provide for them.

Since then, that importance has increased exponentially to the point where arguably, the NHS's very future may depend on it. Unfortunately, the efficiency of NHS data collection has not kept pace. As the Audit Commission will point out tomorrow, great swathes of information are highly questionable. Almost every trust can do something to improve the quality of its data - and needs to.

Now, an extra dimension underlines the crucial nature of good-quality data: much of it - after mulcting - is fed to the public, where it is devoured with an eager appetite and plays a part in forming perceptions of the service. Error-riddled data tardily delivered is simply no longer acceptable. The NHS today needs to pay heed to the slogan which once hung in Fleet Street newsrooms: make it fast, make it accurate.