x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Better statistics for better health care

A database of the UAE's cancer cases promises to serve as a template for data collection on other maladies, including genetic diseases.

Scientists and doctors know that cancer is not one disease, but a broad array of related ones, for which both treatments and survival rates vary widely. In public-health policy and practice worldwide, then, the science of statistics has become a vital tool in the battle against the affliction.

So it is welcome news that progress is continuing in efforts to develop a full-scale nationwide database of all cancer cases. Once complete, this accomplishment promises to serve as a template for data collection on other maladies, including genetic diseases.

As The National reports today, the UAE Ministry of Health is working with local health authorities to extend an incomplete register now maintained at Tawam Hospital. Coordinating data from different jurisdictions and assembling reliable consolidated figures is a complex task, and previous efforts have met only partial success. This new version of the endeavour shows promise of finishing the job, officials say.

The truism that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" plainly applies to public health. Comprehensive and reliable numbers on types of cancer, trends, treatments and their success rates, and other aspects of the problem would allow policymakers and caregivers alike to identify and act upon changes in the incidence of various cancers, and to identify and promulgate best practices.

To be sure, there can be confidentiality concerns about big databases, but few cancer patients will want to make privacy their overriding concern. In any case, data-protection measures can be applied; the whole point of this database is not information on individuals by name, but the big picture of the whole countrywide cancer battlefield.

Nor is cancer the only fight that relies on data. Dr Craig Venter, a US expert on genome mapping, has called for the whole population of the UAE to have genetic testing, as a tool for reducing the country's "very unusual" high rates of genetically transmitted diseases.

That may be too radical, but the UAE already has genetic data covering all those who have had premarital screening - and, when needed, subsequent counselling - to assess the risk of passing on thalassaemia and other genetic disorders to children. Clearly, this is the way of the future.

No patient wants to be "just a statistic", but the better the statistics, the more effective health care can be for each patient.