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NHS report author says claim of "13,000 needless deaths" is a misrepresentation

Bruce Keogh, the author of the report into 14 NHS trusts, writes: "Don’t believe everything you read, particularly in some newspapers."

Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

The claim that there have been "13,000 needless deaths" at 14 NHS trusts since 2005 led several of the weekend's papers and has prompted 10 Conservative MPs to call for the resignation of shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who was responsible for the NHS between 2009 and 2010. In an open letter they write:

It is clear now that the last Labour government oversaw thousands of unnecessary deaths in our NHS Hospitals and failed to expose or confront these care scandals. The patients we represent were betrayed. It would be an outrage if Andy Burnham were ever to return to the role of secretary of state for health.

But while the Tories have seized on the claim for political purposes, the man responsible for the report in question, NHS medical director Bruce Keogh, has entirely rejected the basis for this allegation. 

The figure of 13,000 is based on Hospital Standard Mortality Ratios (HSMRs), which are used to measure whether the death rate at a hospital is higher or lower than expected. But while HSMRS are able to tell us this much, they are, on their own, unable to tell us whether the deaths were due to poor quality care (and therefore avoidable) or other factors. The only way to judge whether or not the deaths were "needless" would be to study each individual's case notes. 

It was for this reason that Robert Francis QC, the author of the report into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, warned that it was "misleading and a potential misuse of the figures to extrapolate from them a conclusion that any particular number, or range of numbers of deaths were caused or contributed to by inadequate care" and that "it would be unsafe to infer from the figures that there was any particular number or range of numbers of avoidable or unnecessary deaths at the Trust."

In addition, as academics at the University of Birmingham have noted, "The HSMR has a poor performance profile (10 of 11 elevated HSMRs would be false alarms and 10 of 11 poorly performing hospitals would escape attention). Crucially, the aim of a post-test investigation into an elevated HSMR is unclear. The use of the HSMR as a screening test for clinically avoidable mortality and thereby substandard care, although well intentioned, is seriously flawed."

When these points were put to Bruce Keogh, the author of today's report, by a reader of the Skwawkbox blog, he replied: 

Mr XXXX,

Thank you. I agree with your sentiments entirely. Not my calculations, not my views. Don’t believe everything you read, particularly in some newspapers.

I am very well versed in this topic, including the abstract you attach.

When you read my report you will regret sending this email!

With best wishes, Bruce Keogh

Having chosen to go on the offensive even before the report has been published, claiming not just that there were "thousands of unnecessary deaths" but that Burnham was to blame, the Tories may well be forced to backtrack when Keogh's conclusions are published in full at 2pm today.