BBC reporting of A&E statistics: Failure to understand or deliberate misrepresentation?

By stewartb

NHS A&E waiting times performance is a recurring topic here on TuS.  We know that the weekly releases of data for meeting the 4-hour standard in Scotland is also common feature of BBC Scotland’s news coverage – well at least it is when the latest release records a decrease in performance, however small.  Improvements in overall performance or exemplary performance by individual hospitals or health boards aren’t newsworthy it seems.

The waiting times performance of A&E in Scotland includes two sets of statistics, one just for ‘Main’ emergency departments (reported weekly) and the other for ‘All’ emergency departments (updated monthly. The distinction according to the NHS Perform website is as follows: ‘Main’ emergency departments are generally located at larger hospitals and deal with most of the A&E attendances in Scotland (around 80%); the ‘All’ category includes ‘other units that provide A&E services such as minor injury units, small hospitals and health centres in rural areas’.

The percentage of attendances meeting the 4-hour target for Main sites is typically lower that that for ‘All’ sites. BBC Scotland reports the former – which I agree is the more informative statistic. ‘Main’ sites are what most of us would regard as ‘A&E’.

However, a different editorial policy is followed by the BBC when reporting on A&E waiting times for NHS England. This is plainly evident in the reporting of the latest release of A&E waiting times data for England today.

I’ve just learned from a BBC Radio 4 news bulletin and an article on the BBC News website the following: the percentage of A&E attendances meeting the 4-hour standard in England is 73.3%.  The article has this:

‘‘… waits in A&E reached record worst levels in December. Just over 73% of those who arrived at an emergency department were seen in four hours.’

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-59972628

This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of A&E waiting times performance in England. The BBC is giving the statistic for All emergency departments. The December statistic for Type 1 emergency departments (the near equivalent to Scotland’s ‘Main’ sites, the statistics which BBC Scotland reports)) is just 61.2%. So the BBC is opting to report – without further explanation –  a figure which is 12 percentage points higher than the one which relates to what most of its audience would regard as a typical A&E department. (By the way, the equivalent November figure for Type 1 departments in NHS England was 61.9%.)

Recall that the latest percentage of attendances meeting the 4-Hour standard at Main departments in Scotland was 71.6%, a performance c. 10 percentage points better that the equivalent figure for NHS England. What proportion of the voting population in Scotland become aware of this – and this differentiation is not a one month flash in the pan!  Stay alert for the BBC News website’s Health section in the coming days publishing a four nation comparison piece: after all England’s 73.3% performance compares ‘favourably’ with Scotland’s 71.6% does it not?

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