A patient with a nurse

Understanding the numbers can benefit patients

In healthcare, numbers matter.

And data about cancer – whether it’s about risk factors, diagnosis, treatment, outcomes or any other aspect – is vital to help decision-makers in the government and NHS plan the best approach to tackle the disease across the UK, both at a local and national level.

The Government wants health data to be more widely available and accessible, particularly to patients. We agree that making cancer data more ‘user friendly’ can help to drive improvements in cancer care.

That’s why we launched our Local Cancer Statistics website – an interactive site that allows people to explore information about cancer in their local area.

Information for the nation

Data is everywhere, and often openly available, but the big challenge is to make sense of it and present it clearly, so politicians, healthcare providers, doctors and patients can make informed and effective decisions.

Our main aim with the Local Cancer Statistics website is to turn raw data into intelligence that can drive such decisions.

It brings together publicly available data to help make sense of the vast pile of figures out there, giving a helpful snapshot of cancer and its associated issues. It’s also possible to compare statistics between local areas and the national average. A snapshot below from the portal shows for example lung cancer incidence rates and smoking rates are higher in Liverpool than the national average.

Lung cancer cases in Liverpool

Rate of lung cancer cases in Liverpool Primary Care Trust

Smoking rates in Liverpool

Smoking rates in Liverpool Local Authority

People can search the data by local geography in each country in the UK, for example by local authority, health care area, constituency or postcode. You can look at rates of cancer incidence (how many people get cancer in the population); deaths and survival; screening uptake; and where, how and when people are diagnosed with cancer.

There are also smoking-related statistics, which is the single biggest preventable risk factor for cancer. In the future, we hope to add more data to explore, such as information about treatments for certain cancers and patients’ experiences of their care, and figures on other important lifestyle factors that pose a risk.

Primarily aimed at politicians, local officials, doctors and anyone else who makes decisions about cancer services, we hope that the data will be a useful resource. We’ve tried to present the data in a relevant and easy to understand way, which will save time for busy people. For example, we know that politicians want to be able to rapidly get a picture of the status of cancer in the patch they represent.

We’re constantly looking to improve the site and if you have any suggestions on how we can make the site better for you please contact us.

Why do we need it?

Locally available data is ever more important with the localisation of decision-making for many cancer and public health services due to the recent NHS reforms. It’s clear from the data that there is variation in cancer statistics across the UK.

This can sometimes lead to finger-pointing at health care providers in areas with worse outcomes, and trigger the familiar “postcode lottery” for health care headlines in the media. But this is often unfair and unhelpful, and good quality data can reveal why.

For example, higher cancer death rates do not necessarily mean that treatment or access to cancer care is worse in these areas. Differences in getting cancer and dying from cancer are often related to underlying variations in risk due to differing lifestyles and socio-economic factors, as highlighted in this BBC story.

More than four in ten cases of cancer could be prevented by changes to lifestyle, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight and cutting back on alcohol. Information on risk factors for cancer, and local actions that can be taken to reduce their impact, will help to raise awareness and guide decision-making.

On average cancer survival rates in the UK lag behind the best in Europe and high quality cancer information is vital to untangle why this is. These measures are important to push for improvements in cancer services – not about placing blame.

Good quality data enables identification of areas for improvement and supports local decision-making. And there is a concerted effort underway by number-crunchers around the UK to enhance the collection of local data and the reliability of the measures we use to compare them.

But while we hope our Local Cancer Statistics website will be useful for decision-makers at all levels, as they work to improve cancer prevention and treatment in the UK, it’s important to remember that these numbers are vital to improve quality of life.

Every data point is a real person – someone’s mum or dad, husband, wife or partner, brother or sister. It’s someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, someone surviving, or someone who has been taken from us by this disease.

Gathering and using these human statistics in an effective way gives us knowledge and power to help beat it.

Carina Crawford, Statistical Information Officer