GP data: Will openness mean better health outcomes?

Doctor holding up a stent Performance levels improved amongst heart surgeons following the publication of survival rates, the prime minster says

"We know nothing at all about the performance of GPs."

That was what Tim Kelsey, the Cabinet Office official overseeing the government's transparency strategy, told a conference last month.

And the government is hoping that will now change, following the announcement today of the next stage in its drive to open up state data.

The datasets to be disclosed in future include comparative clinical outcomes of GP practices in England and also their prescribing data. NHS information about hospital complaints and staff satisfaction levels will be published as well.

Anonymised statistics from the National Pupil Database will also be issued, to facilitate comparisons of pupil performance.

Data deluge

Other releases will include sentencing data from individual courts in England and state-owned transport datasets such as the national car park database.

So who will use all this information, the next downpour in the persistent data deluge that is flooding us with facts?

Not surprisingly David Cameron focuses on how it could give the public, especially parents and patients, better-informed choice in their use of public services.

He also argues that economic benefits will flow from many innovative business opportunities which could be created by the new availability of data, from travel information to medical research.

But it's the other part of his case for increased transparency that I find particularly interesting: Mr Cameron maintains that when professionals get more information about the performance of colleagues or their equivalents elsewhere, that drives a race to the top - standards are raised as everyone learns from the best.

He says this is what happened after the disclosure some years ago of survival rates following heart surgery at different hospitals.

Policy lever

This argument has also been stressed by Mr Kelsey, who founded the health information website Dr Foster before recently joining the Cabinet Office to head the transparency unit.

At the FOI Live conference last month at University College, London, he argued that in this way transparency could offer the best solution to the problem of improving performance outcomes in public services. "Open data is the most important public policy lever we have," he said.

I'm sure that at least on one point he's right.

We don't know how much attention patients will devote to looking at statistics on the clinical outcomes of various GP surgeries. But doubtless GPs themselves will scrutinise the figures carefully, compare their own records to those of other doctors, and seek to understand the reasons behind the variations.

Openness isn't just about what the people know about the state which they fund and governs their lives. It's also to do with what one part of the state knows and understands about other parts of the state.

The government hopes that, at a time of financial stringency, that will be a cheap method to improve the standard and productivity of public services.

Martin Rosenbaum Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Their arrogance (GPs) is without limit. The same applies to their organisations who appear more interested in protecting members of the medical profession and their reputations than in protecting members of the public seriously at risk from their practices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    No it will improve nothing. The less than good will continue as always. The good will spend all their time justifying themselves in the paperwork so won't have time for patients. I have lived 30 yrs same place. On my 4th GP Practise. Finally got a doctor who is responsive. Last one you were lucky to get your coat off. I suppose this one will move on to great things & leave us with dross again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that our GPs & hospitals are at last computerized & linked. It's amazing as far as telling what medication has been subscribed; I'm told that there are important reminders too like: "Don't subscribe X, if patient is taking "Y". Surgeries are indicated; allergies...But it's taken the best part of fifteen years to get to this informed position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    When things go wrong with database. When was checking my GP + dentist, I came across an entry that indicated the professional practices GP + psychiatry + dental surgery; his overall rating was excellent. I questioned the entry; it just seemed to much like one stop service. The next day, the entry had changed - Apparently these were three gents practicing under same roof, but individually.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    In Canada we do have a doctor-database, which includes psychiatric/psychological performance indicators. Into this data base goes any proven malpractice, free-flow comments by patient, and grading indicators 1-10 with 1 being best. It's called something like RateMds.I think it's been most helpful for me to know my doctor has never had a malpractice suit. Oh, dentists are also included.



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