There has been some debate around the daily coronavirus death figures published by Public Health England (PHE). Questions have been raised as to whether it is right for PHE to use a calculation based on a simple methodology of counting every death within 28 days of a positive covid-19 test. In essence, it is suggested that PHE has been over counting the number of deaths, and this is misleading the public.
This piqued our interest and we decided to look into it further. If you’re inclined, you can read the PHE blog here.
Here are some of the headlines:
- The daily figures are not meant to be exact numbers. PHE uses this data as a “headline indicator of the immediate impact of recent epidemic activity”. In other words, it is a rough guide on the direction of travel.
- PHE’s research based on 41,598 confirmed covid-19 deaths recorded up to 3 August 2020 indicated that 88% of these deaths occurred within 28 days of first diagnosis. In fact, the research goes on to show that 96% of all deaths occurred when that period was extended to 60 days of first diagnosis.
- The total number of deaths related to covid-19 is less than the daily figures. Determination of cause of death is based on a clinical assessment and the PHE is not involved in that assessment. It is concerned with the overall impact of the coronavirus.
- PHE indicates that the daily figures are an under counting of the numbers, and is less than the total recorded number of deaths recorded as ‘caused by covid-19’ in death certificates.
So, do the daily figures stack up?
Yes, they do. PHE is not hiding the fact that the daily figures are not exact numbers. There is no attempt to obfuscate. The daily figures are for an intended purpose within PHE to provide a measure of the impact of the infection in the population. The trends and magnitude of the numbers are more important than whether the numbers are the actual numbers of deaths.
Accuracy appears to be secondary, in this instance.
So, what lessons can we learn in the business world?
Data is not always accurate, but can, nonetheless, be useful once we have an understanding of its limitations. To some extent, data can also be about facts.
Understanding of facts and/or data, and its limitations, is fundamental for leaders. There are those within organisations who are partial to making quick judgments, but this inevitably betrays their lack of understanding.
It is also important to accept that running a business is an imperfect science. As leaders, we often have to make decisions without all the facts available – it’s a case of making the best decision based on the best information available at the time.
Leaders who cannot make decisions until they know everything will find their organisation lagging behind, being unable to take decisive (rather than hasty) action. This state of paralysis would lead to mediocre success or, at worse, complete disaster.
On the other end of the spectrum, making decisions in a vacuum without credible information is perhaps even worse. Leaders of that type may use their ‘gut’ and may get it right, but it is only a matter of time before their luck runs out.
Leaders therefore need to learn to live and work with imperfect facts and/or data. Even in the midst of a pandemic, PHE has learnt to use imperfect numbers knowing that insisting on better data will have a costly impact upon the nation’s health.
Perhaps there is a lesson here for all of us.
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