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The Need for High Quality Data in the Junior Doctor Contract Debate

Monday 16 May 2016

Regardless of your preferred news outlet, the use of statistics to illustrate current events is synonymous with the press. Everything from graduate job prospects to voter participation can be neatly broken down into easily digestible chunks of high quality data, allowing comparisons to previous years and showcasing the current social and political issues.

With any statistical interpretation comes the need to take the findings ‘with a pinch of salt’, allowing the data-based conclusions to be put into perspective and treated as a contributory source of information alongside long-term qualitative research. However, this notion has been pushed aside with the recent data analysis in the healthcare sector that has become the basis for a new contract for junior doctors. The rest is history: increasing tensions and the first ever junior doctor strike saw 88% of staff protesting the proposed contact changes.

The study in question has been repeatedly referenced by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to quantify the need for new junior doctor contracts that allow for a ‘seven day NHS’. Hunt claimed that there are around 6,000 excess deaths in the UK per year due to the lack of a seven-day service and went on to forge a new junior doctor contract, using this figure as a foundation, to rectify this statistical ‘finding’.

However, researches from Oxford University have challenged the conclusions that have proved pivotal to the contract proposal, stating that it is an ‘excellent example of how poor quality data, badly interpreted, can lead to the wrong answer’. What followed was even more research that points to fewer deaths following hospital admission at weekends, the complete opposite of what the government has claimed. The fact that the data used by the government was discredited so quickly is a testament to its poor quality: the importance of high quality data has been needlessly overlooked.

This undermining of the data that is imperative to the government’s standpoint has damaged the whole process of contract negotiations and the newly re-opened talks are stretching further into the future. What must be established from the government is the need for more understanding from better quality data, as the anomalies present in the research only serve to weaken their position in future negotiations.

Unfortunately, there are some statistical figures that cannot be overlooked, with the Health Foundation finding that every area of the country has hospitals in significantly worse financial situations than five years ago. There are changes that must be made if the NHS is to remain a sustainable organisation but if they are to be based on data, there must be a far more robust system of analysis that can produce reliable results.

In the healthcare sector, the necessity for high-quality data cannot be understated. Not only is it a key component to understanding the calibre of care patients receive, but a measure of efficiency that can be utilised to better treat patients in the future. The low quality data analysis that has culminated in such a controversial new contract only serves to discredit the professionals that will be affected if it is introduced.

The emphatic way in which Jeremy Hunt’s argument was picked apart pinpoints the importance of well researched, high quality data so that subsequent analysis can paint a real picture of the situation. Data is not always as black and white as it first seems, and more must be done to ensure high quality data is at the heart of any political debate.

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