Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fright night in the doctors' lounge

It doesn't come as a terrible shock to hear that a lot of patients struggle with statistics. It's a little more scary, though, to be reminded that doctors' understanding of health statistics and data on screening isn't all that fabulous either. And now this month we hear that "a considerable proportion of researchers" don't understand routinely used statistical terms in systematic reviews. Gulp.

We've probably only been scratching the surface of what can be done to improve this. A recent small trial found that hyperlinking explanations to statistical and methodological terms in journal articles could improve physicians' understanding. (That's something we've started doing at PubMed Health. Although it's early days yet for us with coverage, they're getting clicked on quite a bit.)

Statistical literacy needs a combination of literacy, mathematical, and critical skills (PDF). In communication, numbers will always be tangled up with words (and sometimes words are better, as I discuss here).

Journalists are key to helping turn this problem around. They probably aren't getting the training they need, according to this study from 2010 - but that might be improving...slowly. Thankfully, Frank Swain from the Royal Statistical Society reports encouragingly on journalists' desire to learn more about statistics in the era of data journalism.

Want to learn more about basic statistics in health studies? Trials show that reading this book, Know Your Chances, could help.

And if you're wondering about how your own mathematics competency is faring since you left school, here's an online test. Mind you, it would help a lot if we had a clearer way of communicating numbers. The confusion over what means mean is a good case in point, covered here at Statistically Funny.

Another study on doctors' understanding and communication of data on the potential benefits and harms of treatment - published in August 2016.

This post was updated on 30 January 2016: the original shorter post was written when Evelyn Lamb and I were co-moderating a session at Science Online.

Additional study on 3 September 2016.


  1. Okay, I'll bite. Those questions are pretty hard! I am by no means innumerate, but I admit I don't know what "pooled odds ratio", "pooled risk ratio", or "weighted mean difference" mean. I had basic statistics, and I remember what a p-value is, but that's about it.
    So, do you know if there are any resources or tutorials on the interwebs that explain the statistics of meta-analysis? Maybe my old statistics books covers it -- I'll have to dig it out.

    1. "Know Your Chances" is a good place to start (linked in the post). For meta-analysis statistics, section 9.2 of the Cochrane Handbook ( ). Sooner or later, I'll cartoon about them all....

  2. lol though the matter is serious I just find the photo funny thanks for posting