Data used for hospital tables 'not accurate'

THE accuracy of data used to compile the Government's first league tables for hospitals, due to be launched this week, has been queried by the Audit Commission. This is revealed in a private briefing paper prepared for regional health authorities by the Department of Health, which also concedes that 'the tables cover only a small fraction of the complex activities involved in running NHS services'.

The document, released yesterday by Labour's health spokesman, David Blunkett, will embarrasss ministers, coming only three days before the launch of the league tables, which measure waiting times for appointments. Mr Blunkett said the paper proved that the tables were 'an expensive PR gimmick'.

In a comment which may undermine some of the league table findings, the document says: 'Not all this data is accurate - the Audit Commission failed some systems.'

It adds: 'In the overwhelming number of such cases the Audit Commission found that people had failed to follow guidance fully rather than any real systems failure. This level of error is easily rectifiable in time for the next set of tables. In the meantime we are making sure that the public can easily identify hospitals which may have failed to collect their figures properly - they are not being awarded stars.'

The document, which reveals that outpatient first appointments will not feature as an indicator, also says that 'weaker performance may mean that a hospital may be falling short of the very best quality of service but is still providing high-quality care and achieving good clinical outcomes'.

Labour rejects the initiative as a series of 'narrow comparisons'. Instead, it wants individual targets for hospitals. Mr Blunkett said: 'The pounds 500,000 to be spent on the tables will clearly do nothing to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of hospitals.'

He added: 'Star ratings are a nonsense because all patients will want five-star treatment yet most will not be able to get it. Those who find their local hospital gets a low rating will find themselves unable to request a five-star alternative.'

But a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said yesterday: 'The main reason for publication was to provide more information about health- service performance to help general practitioners make more informed choices. We expect them to have a powerful effect on raising standards.'

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