What do MDs need to know about statistics?

What do MDs need to know about statistics?

From the Boston Globe (Recommended for MDs: a grounding in statistics)

Doctors need at least a year’s study of statistics to understand the medical advances reported in scientific journals, according to a new report. And most of them don’t have it…

[Most schools provide six to eight weeks of statistics training.]

If doctors can’t interpret information about up-to-date techniques, they might use the information incorrectly or not use it at all, said the report’s author, Nicholas J. Horton, a statistics professor at Smith College…

But not all statisticians think doctors should learn their trade. Stephen Lagakos, a biostatistician at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said most doctors need to know only “the bottom line” of medical studies. He said busy clinicians should be able to use a study’s results without analyzing the statistics behind it.

Most doctors “take it as a given that the journal has done a responsible job in sorting out the bad studies and keeping the good ones,” he said.

I don’t think either of these profs have things quite right. All else being equal, it would be great for docs-to-be to become experts in stats. But expanding the amount of time devoted to statistics, as Horton suggests, would have to come at the expense of something else. I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Lagakos is a little too trusting of medical journals. It’s not just a matter of how well journals sort the good studies from the bad but how those studies are represented by others with a vested interest in getting doctors to act in certain ways, e.g., writing prescriptions for particular drugs.

I’d suggest devoting more of the existing six to eight week stats training to how to be a savvy customer of statistically-based messages. The class could be taught by someone with experience in pharmaceutical or medical device marketing. The syllabus should include titles such as How to Lie with Statistics that get students thinking more critically about what they are hearing.

September 19, 2006

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