Cameron’s dodgy cancer stats

David Cameron's selectively used data on cancer death rates last night. The facts support a greater focus on early diagnosis - an approach he opposes.

David Cameron’s debate went from bad to worse this morning as it emerged he had selectively used data on cancer death rates. The man who many expected to win the debate, had to revert to misusing statistics to paint his picture of a ‘broken Britain’. But the facts support a greater focus on early diagnosis – an approach he opposes.

During the discussion on healthcare, David Cameron used statistics on cancer death rates to support his case for scrapping Labour’s manifesto guarantee to “ensure that all patients see a cancer specialist within two weeks of GP referral” targets and, instead, “create a Cancer Drug Fund”. The Tory leader said:

“Now what Gordon Brown is not telling you about the situation with cancer, cancer drugs and cancer outcomes is after all of the things that he has talked about, all of the money that has gone in, our death rate from cancer is actually worse than Bulgaria’s so all that has happened has not actually improved the outcome which is what matters.”

Watch it:

While strictly speaking Bulgaria has lower mortality rates from cancer than the UK, the independent fact-checking website, Full Fact, asks, “Is this the best measure of the quality of cancer care under the NHS? … A more generally acknowledged measure of cancer care quality is the survival rate amongst those contracting the disease.”

Full Fact goes on to detail the row that broke out after a recent Lancet report on Britain’s performance where the authors ended up “conceding that they agreed that many aspects of the data was ‘encouraging’ for the UK.” Indeed, a new release from the Office for National Statistics this morning details that, “Survival improved for most cancers in both sexes between 2001-2006 and 2003-2007.” For example, survival for women with breast cancer increased from 82.0 per cent to 83.3 per cent while survival for men with prostate cancer rose from 77.0 per cent to 79.7 per cent.

The King’s Fund blog covers some other problems with the survival rate stats, Eurocare, before asking:

“Despite these limitations, EUROCARE does paint a broad picture that survival rates, although improving, have been relatively poor compared to other countries. So why is this? And what is needed to improve cancer outcomes?

“One of the major areas that we now know needs greater attention is early diagnosis, at least for some cancers.”

This is precisely the approach that the Labour party has adopted and which the Tories oppose. By contrast, David Cameron’s Cancer Drug Fund is unfunded, inequitable, inefficient, and a top-down approach. Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre described it as “bullshit” on twitter during last night’s debate.

Incidentally, a third measure of NHS effectiveness is premature deaths from cancer. Here, as this blog has detailed, the figures show rapid improvements in recent years. As page 60 of ‘Health profile of England 2009‘ shows, premature mortality from cancer (ages under 65) is 65.8 for men and 62.9 for women per 100,000 in England. By contrast, it is 121.2 for men an 70.2 for women in Bulgaria. Life expectancy in Bulgaria is also significantly worse at 73 years comparewd to 79.4 years in the UK.

David Cameron’s muddle last night reflects his desire to paint a picture of Britain as ‘broken’. He clearly wants Britain to have a worse cancer record than Bulgaria in the same way that he wants violent crime to be up 44 per cent and for one-in-two teenagers to be pregnant in deprived areas. Put quite simply, he is out of touch with reality.

* Figures for the United Kingdom are slightly worse than England’s but much  better than Bulgaria’s. That said, the Prime Minister only has jurisdiction over the NHS  in England.

UPDATE 13.18:

Full Fact draw attention to a pre-election statement from Cancer Research UK which warned about the stats used by David Cameron.

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