The Sketch: Maths, damned maths and statistics as the NHS gets a grilling

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The Independent Online

The Health Ombudsman published a dossier yesterday describing 10 cases of abuse and fatal neglect in the NHS. It hit the news schedules pretty hard.

Some of the stories are gruesome, though none is worse than you find in the press. The mid-market dailies run half a dozen such stories in a good week and this dossier goes back more than two years. In her foreword, the sainted Ann Abraham refers to herself personally – I, me, my – 10 times. In her introduction to the case studies she does so nine times. There is a large photograph of her smiling in a sadder, wiser way.

In the committee she was welcomed, admired, petted. And yet the MPs seemed to be nursing some inexpressible resentment or dissatisfaction. It would be a public service if they could spit it out because these health bureaucrats need much more intrusive questioning. The NHS's Head of User Experience (sic) said this: "We need to distinguish between the system that is in place and the operation of that system."

"Don't you DARE talk to me like that again!" the questioner conspicuously failed to shout at the wretch. Valerie Vaz actually apologised for asking Ms Abraham her question. She referred to the "harrowing evidence" the committee had taken, but that with 98 per cent of complaints not upheld, people felt they were battering against the system. Ms Vaz concluded with a question so lame it was wheelchaired in: "Do you have any figures for that?"

Of course she had! "That's certainly not how I would present it," Ms Abraham started cosily on her Find The Lady trick. "We uphold a lot of complaints!" To be sure, of the 15,000 complaints received by the office, 10,000 are immediately sent back into the system. But of the 5,000 remaining, 350 were "looked at" and yes, two-thirds upheld.

I'm doing the maths here. Is it right that 233 complaints are upheld? Out of a total of 5,000 – does that mean 96 per cent aren't?

Only once was she discomforted. When asked if a Mid-Staffs could happen again she paused and fidgeted verbally. It was true that her office had received six complaints about that factory of misery, and she had referred them all back to the hospital and "we never saw them again". For a few moments she stopped talking about lessons learnt, and the need to learn quickly, and how useless "bald statistics were without a narrative with them". It looked like she was almost embarrassed.