A new Giuiliani radio ad about healthcare apparently botches the numbers on prostate cancer survival rates in the UK. In the spot, Rudy says his chance of surviving the disease in the British system would be just 44 percent, compared with 82 percent in the U.S. According to ABC, however:
But the data Giuliani cites comes from a single study published eight years ago by a not-for-profit group, and is contradicted by official data from the British government.
According to the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics, for men diagnosed with prostate cancer between 1999 and 2003, the “five-year survival rate” — a common measurement in cancer statistics — was 74.4 percent. [….]
In releasing the ad, the Giuliani campaign cited statistics published in an article in the Summer 2007 issue of City Journal, an urban-policy magazine that Giuliani has pronounced himself a fan of. The article, “The Ugly Truth About Canadian Health Care,” was written by David Gratzer, a physician who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and is a healthcare adviser to the Giuliani campaign.[….]
The article did not name a source for those statistics. Through a spokeswoman, Gratzer said he was relying on data compiled for a 2000 study by the Commonwealth Fund, a not-for-profit foundation that supports health research. [….] The campaign did not attempt to independently verify the statistics, [the spokeswoman] said.
First, apart from the substance of the error, it’s just sort of disturbing that the campaign would pull a number like that without checking the source, making sure the numbers were current, checking context, and so forth. The failure to do so bespeaks a troubling indifference to detail.
ABC also seems to have been a bit lazy here, however, since if they’d spent ten seconds with Google, they would have turned up the Commonwealth Fund paper Gratzer obviously relied upon and discovered that the numbers don’t come from “a single study” conducted by the nonprofit itself. Rather, they’re based on the OECD Health Data Report from 2000, which gives prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates from 1997. (It looks as though Gratzer’s survival figures were computed by taking the ratio of those numbers, which I’m pretty sure is not the same as a “five year survival rate,” the benchmark ABC uses.)
What leaps out at you when you look at the source data, though, is that the actual mortality rates for the U.S. and UK are pretty similar: 26 per 100,000 and 28 per 100,000 respectively. What accounts for the large survival difference is the much higher incidence of prostate cancer in the U.S.: 136 per 100,000. The rate in the UK was only 49 per 100,000 that year. And whatever accounts for that difference—one journal article I found attributes it to more intensive U.S. screening that yields much more frequent diagnosis of non-fatal cancer—it seems obvious that something complicated is going on, rendering these poor comparison cases. So the problem isn’t so much that Giuliani’s campaign used “wrong” numbers from some aberrant study, but that they used outdated numbers that wouldn’t have really established the point he wanted to make if they’d been current. Either way, it seems inauspicious that a presidential candidate’s campaign staff did less due diligence on a major issue ad than, say, one blogger doing ten minutes of research for a short post.