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."

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.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.