Statistics and the NPfIT "success"

Imagine if the Department for Transport were to argue that its programme for reducing road deaths had been successful on the basis that:

– 10,589,446 tonnes of an innovative anti-skid road surface have been deployed

– 61,778 new traffic lights have been installed

– More than 100,000 new tax discs have been issued to vehicles with the highest safety ratings

– Registration of Blackberry-carrying lollipop ladies has reached 10,000

– Government road safety experts have exchanged more than one million e-mails

– More than two million points have been issued to 550,000 new users of the Safety Camera Partnership Scheme

– At least 1,600 road humps of both flat top and round top, of heights varying from 50mm to 100mm, have been installed in 49 towns and cities under the Highway (Road Humps) Regulations and their map coordinates are available to billions of users via the internet.

Such statistics without context would be meaningless. And statistics in support of claims that the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] is a success are almost as meaningless.

Yet below is part of a speech by the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle MP in the House of Commons on 23 October 2007.

She cannot be blamed for what she says. She’s an impressive MP but as a minister she is expected to read out in Parliament scripts written for her by her senior officials, meaningless or not.

Angela Eagle told Parliament:

“Without the [NPfIT] programme, the NHS could no longer function, and it is already providing essential services and significant benefits to tens of thousands of clinicians and millions of patients. It is therefore a success story that ought to be acknowledged.

“For example, more than 5.5 million appointments have now been made using the choose and book system, representing 44 per cent of first referrals. In addition, 397 million diagnostic images are now stored centrally, and 42 million electronic prescriptions have been used in a service that is now available in 41 per cent of pharmacies and 47 per cent of GP surgeries.

“Nearly 400,000 users are registered to use the NHS care records spine, with 45,000 NHS staff accessing it daily….”

If statistics were quoted with frankness and context, they could mean a little more.

For an example of openness and context it’s worth looking at a paper written to his board by Phil Hurd, Director of IM&T at Northamptonshire Teaching Primary Care Trust. Dated October 2007, Hurd’s paper included statistics on the electronic transfer of prescriptions service which allows prescriptions to be transmitted from a GP to a pharmacy via the national data spine. If it works well, e-prescriptions will cut the risk of prescription fraud and make it easier to issue repeat prescriptions.

Hurd explained that in his trust’s area 87% of GP practices were “technically” live with a basic version of the e-prescriptions system. But he explained what technically live meant: 78% of GP practices weren’t actually using it yet.


Minister Angela Eagle reads from her script in answering questions and comments on the NHS National Programme for IT

More statistics and the NHS’s National Programme for IT – updated regularly

More NPfIT statistics – part of an NHS Connecting for Health briefing paper to the Prime Minister

More NPfIT statistics – Department of Health paper to Parliament