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NHS survey ignores disability - again.

NHS survey asks if you're Irish - but not if you're disabled

The NHS is running a campaign to get people to think before rushing round to Casualty - to consider first the local chemist's shop or their GP. A good idea - saving money for us all.

Like all good projects they're testing their campaign to see if it works. There's a questionnaire going round called the North West Choose Well Survey:  Please go and fill it in*  - but you might find a very important question missing.

At the end of most surveys there are questions about you, such as your age, or your gender. Sometimes people think these questions are intrusive, but there are two very good reasons for them.

The first reason is to check that the survey is not biased by ignoring some people's thoughts.

For example, if you just put your survey on-line you probably get fewer old people in your replies (older people use computers less). You can adjust your survey results to allow for that (it's perfectly good practice to do that) but you need to know about it in the first place. So you have to ask people's ages to compare that with the average age. Similarly, if you do a survey in London and find that 100% of the replies came from people who describe themselves as "White British" you know you'd be wrong to claim that your results represent all Londoners.

The second reason is to see if things are different for different people.

If you're doing a survey about people's fear of crime, for example, it's important to be able to contrast women's experiences from men's, as they're likely to be very different. So you ask people about their gender and you produce results that make that comparison.

Of course, you can't ask everything about the people who fill in your questionnaire. But, as well as age and ethnicity, we hoped that the NHS would want to ask about disability.

We're used to commercial market research surveys leaving out a disability question. We don't like it, and we think it just adds to the impression that disabled people are not really involved in the mainstream economic or social life of the country. We also know about problems that  public bodies have if they want to include survey questions to cover the full range of "protected characteristics" under the new Equality Act:  it can be simply a question of finding space on the form.

But if you're asking about someone's first actions on getting a minor illness (do they phone NHS Direct or do they go to a "Walk-in centre"?) then we think that it might just be useful to know if those people are disabled or not. It's not as if there's no point in asking the question - around 1 in 5 of the population at the last Census said they had a long-term limiting illness or condition.

Sadly the NHS has ”form" on this - we have complained before (for example about the national survey of access to GPs a couple of years ago) that a simple disability question seems to be missing in standard NHS survey practice.

There are various different wordings that a disability question could use. But if choosing the right question is the only issue then we are happy to advise - we want to be positive. And an NHS contract to share our expertise would certainly contribute to the sustainability that national and local policies want us to achieve.

* The link to the online version of the survey isn't working at the moment: download a paper copy from us here