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NICE but dim

Warning: post contains economics. Some readers may find themselves bored silly. In such cases, Dr No recommends taking a tea-break and returning to the post only when the sense of boredom has completely dissipated.

Economists are keen on a concept known as elasticity. There appear, from Dr No’s primitive researches on the matter, to be a disconcerting number of elasticities in economics. Naturally enough, economists dress all these elasticities up in hieroglyphics, but inspected through the lens of common-sense, economics stands revealed as a study of rubber bands, albeit rubber bands that drive economic activity, but rubber bands nonetheless.

NICE trip on the wagon

Another voice has been added to the hue and cry for a minimum price for alcohol. Within days of Rubber Duck stepping down from his CMO post, the better to quack his favourite message, NICE, the National Institute for Health, Clinical and Anything Else Anybody Will Pay Us For Excellence, has jumped on the wagon. Voluminous guidance, published earlier this week, recommends a raft of measures that, NICE says, will ‘significantly decrease alcohol consumption’ if implemented. A top tip for government is to make alcohol ‘less affordable by introducing a minimum price per unit’. There was much talk of growing tides of unassailable evidence. Dr No began to fear he was now King Canute, alone on the beach, his once half full glass now half empty. Until, that is, he heard an interview on the Today programme. Suddenly the glass was half full again.

The Mystery of the Toothless Bearded Hag

Flogging toothpaste may be a dull business, but for once eyes must surely have shone brighter than teeth in the marketing department at Colgate this week. A gift of a study, published in the BMJ last Thursday, linked poor toothbrushing to heart disease. The media predictably flipped the message, with headlines certain to fix a smile on even the most jaded of Colgate lips. Auntie exhorted us to ‘Brush teeth to halt heart disease’, while the Daily Mail directed ‘Clean your teeth twice a day to keep a heart attack at bay’. The ping was at last back in the Colgate ring of confidence, for who needs advertising, when sparkling headlines (351 of them, according to google) say it all?

Death Bandits

The Hospital Manager’s Association

Top Secret – Eyes Only

The Hospital Manager’s Guide to Massaging HSMRs

Members will be aggrieved to hear that the Doctor Foster Intelligence Unit and its lottery hospital standardised mortality ratios (HSMRs) are here to stay, despite several recent papers showing the methodology to be unsound.

Members will appreciate that they supply the raw data used by Dr Foster, thus providing opportunities to ‘cook’ the figures before they are passed to Dr Foster. The Association does not condone directly tampering with the data; however, faced with the intractable use of flawed statistics, the Association does believe members are entitled to ‘game’ the system to their advantage.

A Market Too Far

Jim Naughtie, interrupter-in-chief on Radio 4’s Today program, this morning scaled new heights of discourse interruptus, peppering a hapless Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern with tiresome ejaculations of febrile nuisance. One might presume that the Dame – who was until last year Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge - might be an expert in putting naughty boys in their place, but she was no match for Naughtie Jim.

The Dame was on air to talk about ‘incentivizing’ organ donors. The deal is that altruistic donation fails to produce enough organs, and that the time has come to consider what carrots might produce more kidneys. Some suggestions are out of sublime by way of ridiculous – souvenir T-shirts and mugs for example – but the bottom line is that this is about handing over lolly in return for the goods - or what the Dame coyly referred to as ‘bodily material’.

The Real Tomorrow’s Doctors

This week’s episode of Dr Who showed early promise, with khaki tea-making squaddie daleks, complete with Union Jack logos, but started to unravel the moment Ian McNeice started impersonating Robbie Coltrane, instead of playing Churchill, and descended into farce when the Lego-inspired bootylicious make-over daleks arrived. There was but one consolation: Bill Patterson, late of Sea of Souls, was finally revealed, as has long been suspected, as an alien.

The GMC, now that it has adopted dalek methodology to manufacture Tomorrow’s Doctors, has no doubt installed Pattersons in every medical school. The fruits of these alien endeavours are already abroad on our wards and in our surgeries; but in amongst the robodocs, there are some who lack dalek DNA, and who have retained their natural and human curiosity. One such doctor is a young GP, who blogs as the Pondering Practitioner.

Yes Sir, That’s My Balls-Up

The origins of the phrase ‘balls-up’ are obscure. Some say that it arises from an awkward sexual encounter, but Dr No prefers a nautical origin. A vessel aground can be said after a fashion to be anchored, in that it is attached to the sea bed; and it is also unable to manoeuvre, or ‘not under command’, as the rules have it. A vessel at anchor carries one black ball, a vessel not under command two black balls, and thus a vessel that has run aground and is in trouble carries three black balls, a situation commonly and naturally referred to as a complete balls-up.

The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, quango to the quangos, has a logo featuring not three but nine balls suspended in mid-air. It is an inspired image for a quango that not only lacks balls in the right place, but has also shown itself capable of repeated balls-up after balls-up, most recently in its eye-wateringly off-the-wall review of the GMC decision to allow the Diamorphine Queen to remain on the medical register, with only trivial and time-limited conditions on her practice.

Stiff Counting

There has been much ado about hospital death rates lately, much of it focused on the Mid Staffs hospitals, where consistently high apparent death rates were repeatedly brushed aside and ignored. The issue at stake was the validity - or not - of certain statistics produced by Sir Jar and his operatives at HI5, the Dr Foster Intelligence Unit, and one statistic in particular, the HSMR.

The HSMR, or Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratio to give it its full name, is said by Sir Jar to offer a useful marker of a hospital’s performance, by providing a single figure that summarises how many patients leave the hospital feet-first. High value HSMRs suggest more stiffs than expected, low HSMRs indicate less stiffs than expected, compared to national figures. Unfortunately for Sir Jar, the method – quite apart from a myriad of other factors that might compromise validity - he uses to determine HSMRs suffers from a flaw that severely restricts its application. While an isolated HMSR can be compared to the ‘big picture’ – in other words, the standard population to which it is being compared - comparisons between hospitals, or even the same hospital over time, are prone to errors, which can render the results at best meaningless, at worst misleading.

The Doctor and Dr No

Sometimes Dr No has wacky ideas. One of his favourites is that all of time has already happened. Like a film in a can, it is all there, beginning to end; and, like a film, we see it sequentially, frame after frame, and that is what gives us the illusion of movement, and of the arrow of time. Sometimes he goes a little further; and, seeing the film strips lying in coils side by side on the reel, wonders whether we might, just might, if the conditions were right, be able to read the film not sequentially on the strip, but radially, on the axis of a spoke, and so be able to see, perhaps even move, backwards and forwards in time.

Experts Bail Out

Unlike the well-fed DoH poodles at the RCP kennels, the unpaid members of the UK’s Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have shown commendable backbone is standing up to the bullying ways of Home Secretary Alan ‘Hadron Collider’ Johnson. Indeed, so many advisors have now bailed out of the Advisory Council that the media, never strong on numbers at the best of times, have lost count of how many have jumped. It could be seven; or it might be eight. The latest expert to don his ’chute and jump is one Eric Carlin, citing undue political and media influence on the Council’s work.