Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


In The Guardian: surgeons’ deathrates online (but not for reuse)

The more things seem to change with government-collected information, the more they really stay the same. The latest example: surgeons’ deathrates, which will be made public under a new NHS scheme.

Except that, as we point out in NHS plans to reveal surgeons deathrates online in today’s Guardian, the data won’t be in a very usable form (at a guess, it’ll be a stack of PDFs – not even Excel files). And you’ll be banned from reusing it in any meaningful way.

It’s all of a part with the NHS Choices website, which will have the data:

NHS Choices is one of the government’s most lavish web projects, designed with web 2.0 very much in mind. Among other services, it promises “a social network for health”. A strategy published earlier this year says: “When people want to comment directly on their experiences of particular services, whether positive or negative, NHS Choices will become their first port of call.” The two-way information flow “will empower people to make informed decisions about their health and social care”.

However, while the strategy enthuses about the power of information in the new web world, it makes no mention of allowing re-use in mashups and commercial ventures. The site’s terms and conditions themselves suggest such use is out of bounds: “For your own personal non-commercial use you may copy, download, adapt or print off copies of the materials, information, data and other content included on NHS Choices (‘NHS Choices content’). You will need to obtain permission in writing from us before you make any other use of NHS Choices content.”

Now, let’s be clear that surgeons’ deathrates are easily misinterpreted. Someone who only ever does grommets isn’t going to have the sort of patient deathrate that someone doing open-heart surgery or brain surgery might. (There’s even an argument that what matters isn’t the operating-table mortality, but the 30- or 60-day mortality, since this tells you how well the patient recovered from everything.)

Nevertheless deathrates have a basic utility: it could have helped, for instance, to more quickly identify the Bristol heart babies’ abnormally high deathrates.

Then again, the BBC article linked to there is from 1998 – that’s ten years ago, folks – and in it, we’re told that “ministers believe the system [to make patient death rates at hospitals public, slightly different from this latest scheme] will become a powerful tool to raise standards and share information on the NHS.”

Kind of hard if people can’t reuse it easily. And also: “it could also work as an early warning system to prevent cases similar to that of Bristol.”

The data will need to have extra information, clearly, about what sort of operations were being done; simply saying “Surgeon X: deathrate Y” is inimical and useless. We’ll have to see..

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