Essex, bridge and NHS waiting times – what is meant matters

What links Essex, the card game bridge, and NHS waiting list statistics?

Each has seen disagreements over what is meant.

Is bridge a sport? The English Bridge Union argues it is – specifically that it is a Mind Sport. It highlights the definition of sport in section 3 of the 2011 Charities Act where ‘sport’ means “sports or games which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion”. But Sport England disagrees. Its emphasis is on the physical activity and exertion.

A judicial review is now under way. It won’t decide on the whether or not bridge is sport. But it is considering if Sport England has been reasonable in its choice of definition in ruling that bridge is not a sport.

If bridge is a sport it might be a good choice for those on the NHS waiting list for consultant-led treatment. Full Fact – a factchecking organisation – has been considering claims for those waiting beyond 18 weeks.

In April 2015, the Guardian said: “The number and proportion of NHS hospital patients in England waiting more than 18 weeks to begin treatment have risen to their highest levels in almost seven years, official statistics show.” But in July 2015 the Daily Mail quoted a government spokesperson saying: “Fewer people wait longer than the 18-week standard now than at any point before 2010.”

Full Fact has unpicked this apparent contradiction. It turns out it’s all about what is meant – those still waiting after 18 weeks for treatment to start, against those whose treatment has started and who waited beyond 18 weeks.

Even the best can be tripped up by definitions – as Full Fact itself has found. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 29 October 2014, the then MP for Colchester, Sir Bob Russell, claimed that more people live in Essex than voted yes in the Scottish referendum on independence. Full Fact quickly tweeted that this wasn’t the case. Yet Sir Bob was right. Full Fact had taken a figure for the administrative county of Essex that excludes the unitary authorities of Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea – essentially a statistical construct. Sir Bob was considering what most people would think of as Essex – the traditional/ceremonial county that includes those towns.

Definitions and what is meant matter a lot. If bridge were to be considered a sport then it would mean bridge clubs could apply for grants from Sport England and the National Lottery. Full Fact’s tweet was retweeted by others – including a journalist on a national newspaper. NHS waiting times continue to be a political football with claim and counterclaim.

As public relations becomes increasingly data driven it’s going to be vital that PR practitioners are alert to these issues. Before citing evidence do we understand the definitions of technical terms? Have we anticipated how they might be misunderstood by others?

This is why I emphasise three things in my workshops and to clients:

  1. Identify your source – not just the organisation but the document and table, even the column and row
  2. Define all terms – don’t rely on them being ‘obvious’, they may not be
  3. Show your working – if you’ve carried out any calculations make sure it’s clear what you’ve done

These work both ways. If you’ve made a mistake, then including the above can often help you or a colleague spot it before you’ve broadcast it to the wider world. It helps others understand – and even reproduce and confirm – your results and claims. Even if they find a mistake it’s better you know sooner rather than later!

NB all of the above was written while I’m on what I often define as a small island several hundred miles from the coast of Spain – the Isle of Wight!

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