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Editorial Wednesday 3 April 2013: British Social Attitudes 2012 data shows marginal recovery in public's NHS satisfaction

The famous public policy scientist Yazz defined it perfectly, albeit in a way that is ignorant of the laws of gravity: The Only Way Is Up.

The 2012 British Social Attitudes survey's health data, now supported financially by the Kings Fund following the DH's withdrawal, has found that following the record drop in the 2011 survey from 70% public satisfaction to 58%, there has been a small rebound - albeit within the margin of error for measurement.

It's now 61% in the latest BSA figures. That's an improvement, and credit is due to NHS staff for this.

There are of course framing issues with the BSA survey, as outlined by polling expert Dan Wellings, formerly of Ipsos MORI and now of NHS England in his Nuffield Trust blog last summer.

Some of the detail is interesting: there are contrasting findings over the trends of several years for GPs and dentists. The former group who are of course now running the NHS, under the aegis of well-known GP Comrade Sir David Nicholson and Chairman Mal - who is at least married to a GP, sees a tiny year-on-year improvement.

GPs see a slight increase in their traditionally high public satisfaction ratings, from 73% in 2011 to 74 per cent in 2012. But it's still significantly down on the 2009 peak of 80%.

Dentistry maintains its trend at 56% from 2011, in the context of its improvement from percentages in the low 40s from 2004.

There might be interesting lessons for NHS England about the commissioning of services there.

Hospital inpatient and A&E satisfaction ratings both improve on 2011, at 64% for inpatients (up from 61%) and 59% for A&E (up from 54%). Contrastingly, outpatient satisfaction continues to fall to 52% (from 2011's 54%, and still down on the 2010 peak of 61%.

The findings on satisfaction with social care are very interesting, though not comparable to previously-asked questions. The summary states that "just 30 per cent of respondents were very or quite satisfied with social care and 31 per cent were very or quite dissatisfied. However, an almost equal proportion (28 per cent) were neutral, and 11 per cent did not know; both these responses were significantly higher than for NHS services and might indicate a relative lack of knowledge about social care services rather than a low satisfaction".

The Kings Fund's conclusion observes that "while satisfaction with the NHS overall remains high by historical standards, there has been little improvement since the sharp decline seen in 2011. In effect, there has been little or no recovery from the big fall in satisfaction recorded in 2011". Hard to argue.

Likewise that in the next BSA data set, "it will be fascinating to see how the next survey, to be conducted over the summer of this year, will reflect the public’s attitudes towards the NHS as it enters its first year of the implementation of the government's reforms of the NHS, its fourth year of near-zero increase in real funding and in the wake of the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust".

Polls are a picture of a moment in time, and include the ill-informed and the NHS non-user community. Nonetheless, the BSA survey remains a rich and long-running data set. It's an indicator that policymakers and watchers would be ill-advised to ignore.