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NHS statistics deliver blow to labour ministers

National Health Service productivity has fallen by 3 per cent, or 0.4 per cent a year on average, since 2001, latest official figures show. The biggest annual fall, 0.7 per cent, occurred in 2008, the most recent year for which the Office for National Statistics has figures.

The continued decline in productivity will be an embarrassment for health ministers, since it shows that the huge increase in the numbers of patients treated as NHS spending has doubled in real terms has been outpaced by the growth in the service’s workforce and the volume of goods and services bought by the NHS.

The ONS has adjusted its measurements of quality, putting a value on any increase in short-term survival rates, health gains following treatment, shorter waiting times and some measures of the performance of primary care – for example, improvements in blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

Without that adjustment, the productivity fall would have been even steeper – 7.8 per cent since 2001.

The figures make grim reading for the NHS. Health ministers concede the service, which faces a real-terms freeze in funding, will need to make efficiency savings and productivity gains worth between £15bn and £20bn over the next few years.

Mike O’Brien, the health minister, said Labour had inherited a severely under-staffed and underfunded NHS, and addressing that had affected productivity.

He said: “Most economists, and HM Treasury, accept it is difficult to grow capacity and productivity at the same time, yet the NHS maintained virtually flat productivity [a 0.3 per cent a year decline] over the longest period of sustained growth in its history.”

The figures come, however, with some qualifications. The ONS has improved its measures of quality over the years but there are still significant aspects of quality that the data fail to capture.

For example, longer consultations with a family doctor would show up as a productivity fall, even if they left patients more satisfied and produced better long-term clinical outcomes. The NHS has also hired more specialist cancer nurses, who have improved the quality of care but not extended life expectancy, producing a productivity drop.

The ONS said yesterday that the quality measures were “the best we have at the moment but measuring quality [in the NHS] is very difficult”. Furthermore, while the figures are for the UK, no data are available for the productivity of care in Scotland.

From: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/67f8afe0-37b0-11df-88c6-00144feabdc0.html

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