How to inflate figures and scandalise people

A number of papers this week (Daily Express*, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Wales on Sunday) have all carried the same story, claiming that, in the words of the Daily Mail, “NHS officials pay £32 for gluten-free bread that costs £2.25 in the shops”.

Though it’s not impossible that a big organisation like the NHS has inefficient bread-buying schemes, it seems a bit unlikely that something as widely prescribed as gluten-free bread is being bought for more than 10 times its shelf price. So where did the figures come from?

Well, it looks like the story comes from this Welsh government data about prescriptions. Sure enough, if you look it says that the 27 prescriptions of a particular type of bread, Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, cost £32.27 each.** But doctors aren’t prescribing one loaf of bread at a time.

The important column is the one marked “quantity”, which tells you how many grams of bread were prescribed. For Lifestyle Gluten-Free High-Fibre Brown, doctors prescribed a total of 123,600 grams. Divided between the 27 people, that’s 4,577 grams each, or about 11 loaves of bread per person. So that £32.27 figure is the cost of buying 11 loaves of bread, not 1, and as the Welsh government points out, it works out at around £2.82 per loaf.  This is still slightly more than the cheapest online cost of the bread, so I assume there is still room to bring prescription costs down, but NHS Wales is certainly not spending more than £30 on a loaf of bread.

* Turns out James Delingpole writes for The Express too. Huh.

** If you want to check for yourself, it’s in section G-O under the name “Lifestyle_G/f H/fbre Bread Brown”.

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  1. #1 by rankersbo on Wednesday, 20th July 2011 - 13:24 UTC

    Part of me wishes that this is mendacity on the part of reporters. I fear there may be a measure of numeric illteracy here.

  2. #2 by Hywel Mallett on Wednesday, 20th July 2011 - 14:40 UTC

    Good fact-hunting! When I saw the article I thought it was unlikely to be accurate, but didn’t have time to try and find the source data.

  3. #3 by Jon_S on Wednesday, 20th July 2011 - 19:24 UTC

    Great digging, though I fear the world may collapse in on some sort of Delingpole-Express singularity. The combination of the two is frightening.

  4. #4 by septicisle on Wednesday, 20th July 2011 - 21:27 UTC

    Was also in the Sun’s leader column as an example of NHS spending madness, so presumably appeared elsewhere in the paper also.

  5. #5 by Primly Stable on Tuesday, 2nd August 2011 - 6:15 UTC

    According to the lovely people at the Coeliac Disease Society, the Express have corrected Delingpole’s error: http://is.gd/SQWw3K . However, the full and uncorrected text remains online.

    The consequences of this fake story are potentially rather serious. The CDS are fighting an ongoing campaign to stop the government scrapping gluten-free food on prescription, and lazy reporting like this – complete with a tiny “clarification” buried away on page 26 – makes their task much harder.

    Now you may think that gluten-free food should not be on prescription, and that’s fine. But as Barack Obama said recently: “You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts”.

  6. #6 by Primly Stable on Tuesday, 2nd August 2011 - 6:24 UTC

    Oh, and it turns out the story came from the Welsh Assembly’s Shadow Minister for Health: http://www.darrenmillaram.com/news/each-gluten-free-loaf-costs-nhs-%C2%A320

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