Jeremy Laurance: The difference between fact and fiction isn't so easy to see

Medical Life
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The trusty sword of truth – that is what we reporters are supposed to wield as we go about our business, cutting out the fabrication, flannel and flagrant untruths from the welter of material sent our way.

Much of the time it is simple – "British breasts are bouncing back" was the headline on a press release last Friday, claiming a 30 per cent increase in "sales". Sales of what exactly? Plastic footballs? An increase on what? Who knows...

But often there are traps for the unwary. Here are four from the last week.

Tuesday: "Specialist doctors label the NHS institutionally ageist", declared Help the Aged. Almost half (47 per cent) of doctors specialising in the care of the elderly said so in a survey. Good story, no? I am convinced that the NHS is institutionally ageist. But the survey questionnaire didn't prove it. It was returned by 200 members of the 2,000 strong British Geriatrics Society – so the real story was that 94 think there is an ageism problem and 1,906 either disagrees or couldn't be bothered to fill it in.

Wednesday: Suicide rates at their lowest since 1991, said the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Good news, yes? Actually, the news is rather better than this. Suicide rates are at their lowest since the Second World War (crack open the bubbly now, because they are unlikely to remain that way). What the ONS meant was that the rates are at their lowest since they started collecting the stats in their current form, which happened to be in 1991. But they didn't say so.

Thursday: Mixed-sex wards. The Government is going to ban them. Again. In fact, for about the fifth time. But will we know when/if they have succeeded? Don't bet on it. In 2006, the Department of Health claimed that 99 per cent of patients were treated in single-sex "accommodation" but a Healthcare Commission report in 2008 found that one in four patients said they had to share a room or bay with patients of the opposite sex when first admitted. Some trusts had separated bays only by a curtain (patients were not fooled). The department has banned that trick and insisted on "separate sleeping areas". So, if a woman patient is admitted to a ward full of men at 9am, but wheeled away to a lonely corridor at 9pm, that's alright then?

Friday: Children should enjoy an alcohol-free childhood, at least until the age of 15, the Government announced. What planet are they on? Anyone who has ever had notional charge of a teenager will know that the challenge is not to stop them going at 100 miles an hour, but to stop them going at 150 miles an hour, because that is the best you can hope for. The dangers of binge drinking (at any age) are well known, and it is not difficult to believe they are greater at ages below 15. But can the odd glass of beer or wine for a 14- or 13-year-old be harmful? I scoured the medical evidence published with the report – and found no answer.

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