Died After Being Found Fit to Work. Really?

In this post I want to deal with this Guardian story (note: this story was also covered in other newspapers).

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In this article the Guardian claim that 2,380 people died shortly after being declared fit to work by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Okay, whilst every death is a tragedy for the individuals’ families, my initial reaction to this is: so what, people die shortly after having consumed breakfast, that doesn’t mean the two things are correlated? To find out if this is actually a problem or not, we need to dig into the figures.

The source data for this article comes from this freedom of information release, made by the DWP. There are a couple of pieces of information contained in the release, but the figures we are going to analyse are contained in the first request for information, namely:

Information request 1
The total number of people who have died within a year of their work capability assessment since May 2010

The answer to which was given as:

Total number of individuals with a WCA decision between 1 May 2010 and 28 February 2013: 2,017,070
of which: Number who died within a year of that decision. 40,680

To find out if that figure of ~40K is high or not, we have to do the following things:

  1. Using the UK’s population pyramid for 2015, break the ~2M down by age group.
  2. Annualise that figure for the dates provided (assuming uniform distribution).
  3. Normalise the above rates for working age population.
  4. Find out the Age Standardised Mortality Rates (ASMR) for each of the above groups.
  5. Calculate the expected deaths in each age group.
  6. Sum those and compare to the annualised figures.

Phew, okay, let’s get started. Using the above link to the UK’s population pyramid, and assuming it’s not changed that much between 2013 and 2015, annualising the figures and then normalising for the working population, we can say that the ~2M figure breaks down, annually, as follows:

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Using the above link to the ASMR from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), we can find the death rate per group and from that, calculate how many people, from each group, we would expect to die:

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Summing each age group, we find that we’d expect 1,811 claimants to die per year. Our annualised death figure show that, in actuality, 10,539 claimants died, a variation of 8,728.

The sub-text of the news article was clearly that the DWP test is unfair and is forcing people, “on death’s door”, back to work. On the face of it, these figures would support that, but before we come down on one side of this argument or the other, we have to look to see if we can account for the delta between expected and actual numbers in any other way.

Firstly, the DWP figures don’t account for what caused the death. The claimant could have finished the test and been hit by a bus on the way home; the resulting death was nothing to do with their claim. True, but then the ASMR rates take into account deaths from all causes, so we have that covered.

Next, the DWP figures show deaths after a decision was made, but it doesn’t say what that decision was. Some of these claimants would have continued to receive the benefit, or would have been moved onto other benefits, they were not all necessarily “forced back to work”.

There are also a couple of things that would have depressed our number of expected deaths. Firstly, we assumed that the claimant population mirrors the working population; it doesn’t. We know that the claimant population contains more older males, two categories (older and male) with increased death rates.

On top of this, we assumed that the claimant population mirrors the working population in terms of health (and so risk of death). This, clearly, is not true

These things will have accounted for some of the ~8K “extra” deaths; how many? Well we don’t know. I think we have to put a “health warning” on these figures. So, what can we say with confidence? Well firstly we can say that more people die in the claimant population than in the working population, however we need to do more research to discover if this difference is significant. The other thing we can say, with confidence, is that the source data does not backup the Guardian’s article.

Well that’s it for this post, ‘til next time, keep crunching those numbers! Open-mouthed smile

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