UK govt's "evidence based" health policies aren't based on evidence

Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre looks at the UK government's claims that its health cuts and changes are "evidence-based" and finds that the "evidence" consists of bad studies and cherry-picked results.

The government initially claimed that UK heart attack death rates were twice as bad as France. This was an overstatement: they are, but following recent interventions the gap is closing so rapidly that on current trends it will have disappeared entirely by 2012. In response, Burstow cites a 2008 paper by McKee and Nolte which he says "concluded that the UK had one of the worst rates of mortality amenable to healthcare among rich nations".

Burstow either misunderstands or misrepresents this very simple and brief paper. It is a study explicitly looking at time trends, not static figures, and it once again finds that comparing 2003 with 1998, the UK still had fairly high rates of avoidable mortality, but these were falling faster than in all but one of the other 18 industrialised countries they examined (meanwhile in the US, avoidable mortality improved at a disastrously slow pace, although they spent more money).

This is a paper showing the success of the NHS, and the fact that we are discussing such a massive improvement in avoidable mortality from Labour's first term in government is not my choosing: this is the paper that was cited by the Tory minister as evidence, bizarrely, of the NHS's recent failures.

Why is evidence so hard for politicians?

(Image: David Cameron's so-called policy on the NHS!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from raver_mikey's photostream)