Jeremy Laurance: Cameron's cancer figures could do with a check-up

Medical Life

Whenever politicians quote statistics, it is time to reach for the Rule of the Lesser Miracle, devised by the 18th century philosopher David Hume to test the veracity of biblical claims about the doings of Jesus Christ. I was reminded of this when David Cameron claimed in the party leaders' TV debate that Britain's death rate for cancer was "actually worse than the Bulgarians'". Could that be true?

Hume's argument was that a rational man would always believe the lesser of two miracles. In the case of the claim that Jesus walked on water, for example, which is the lesser miracle: that he did so or that the disciples were deceived? Applying the rule to Cameron's claim, which would be the lesser miracle – that Britain's NHS has a worse record for cancer survival than Bulgaria, or that Bulgaria is less reliable at collecting cancer statistics than Britain? Eurostat health data for 2007 does indeed show that Bulgaria had 170.3 cancer deaths per 100,000 population whereas the UK had 178.1 deaths. Cameron chooses to see this as evidence of Britain's dismal performance.

But it is the very fact that the figures show Britain performs worse than Bulgaria that calls the data into question. They defy belief, but Cameron chose not to question them but to accept them at face value. Britain's cancer registries are among the best in the world and the reason we appear to have more deaths than some less advanced countries is because we are better at counting them.

But we are not alone. Bulgaria's overall cancer death rate, as Labour pointed out, is lower than the USA, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Austria. Nor is Bulgaria alone. According to World Health Organisation figures the following countries can celebrate lower cancer death rates than the western nations mentioned above: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Yemen, Belize and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I look forward to the day when, under a future Tory government, NHS patients begin demanding cancer treatment in Bangladesh because of the poor quality of services back home.

One reason why cancer kills more people in the West is because, thanks to high standards of medical care, they live long enough to get it (cancer is principally a disease of old age) rather than dying of something else. This is not to say that Britain's cancer record is excellent. It is far from being so. Our survival rates are poor compared with Europe and up to 11,000 deaths could be prevented every year if survival rates were at the levels of the best-performing countries, according to a report last year.

The Tories blame lack of access to the best new cancer drugs. But evidence suggests it is patients being diagnosed and referred late that is a bigger problem. Either way, the use of shoddy statistics is no way to conduct a debate about Britain's most important public service.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Housekeeper

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is the holding company of an expa...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Engineer

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Setup, configure, troubleshoot,...

    Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

    £15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future