independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Statistically speaking, our figures don't add up

ONE statistic that has always been a quiet source of national pride is Ireland's very low rate of maternal death.

For decades we have been ranked in the top three or four countries worldwide when it comes to safe births, showing the Danes and Norwegians how it is done.

Doctors from those countries have flocked to Ireland to study Irish maternity hospitals and copy our system of "private", "semi-private" and "public" patients and then returned home to throw away most of their equipment so they could replicate the Irish system as accurately as possible.

Naturally, I made the last sentence up. While we have long congratulated ourselves on our successes in the maternity ward, they have always seemed to be too good to be true.

Through boom and bust, through terrible scandals and backward medical practices, we have never stopped patting ourselves on the back while wondering uneasily why we should excel at this particular branch of medicine when we are so average in most other fields.

Now we know. It turns out that the Central Statistics Office figures used to compile the official maternal death rate would be at least double if we used internationally recognised criteria.

A report by HSE-funded MDE Ireland, which uses sources such as the Coroners' Courts and public health nurses, found that 25 women who attended maternity hospitals here died during that time. The CSO figures missed 20 of those deaths.

Anybody who has worked in a local newspaper or local hospital in Ireland will tell you that our official suicide rates, which are based on verdicts from Coroners' Courts, hide the real figure.

In a country where we cannot even count simple things like the number of foreigners living here or the number of houses, it is small wonder perhaps that we cannot count life and death.

Anybody who tries to understand the economy faces the same problem, few of the key figures make much sense once one engages with them.

We don't really have any idea about economic output, for example, thanks to the distortions from multinationals and transfer pricing. Or house prices (thanks to the decision to exclude cash transactions) or emigration (thanks to the fact that the figures are not collected at all).

In fact, we don't really have a clue what's going on anywhere despite the blizzard of stats that pour forth from the CSO and a dozen other state agencies every week. Perhaps it is time to go back to basics and compile fewer statistics but ensure that the figures we do use are accurate?

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