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September 11, 2006

More Math for Doctors May Add Up to Better Care

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Understanding the latest medical advances may be difficult for physicians who increasingly lack the depth of knowledge needed to comprehend data published in a popular medical journal, according to a pair of Smith College researchers.

Researchers examined the level of statistical knowledge required to understand articles that appeared during the past two years in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), a publication that is widely read by clinicians. They found that material beyond that covered in a typical college-level statistics course was needed to comprehend the results of many of the studies.

“Keeping up with the latest medical advances is critical for physicians,” said Nicholas Horton, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Smith and one of the researchers. “Increasingly, physicians need a strong background in statistics in order to determine what the findings mean for their patients.”

Throughout the past 25 years, the number of advanced statistical methods used to describe medical advances in NEJM papers more than doubled, according to Horton.

Smith researchers also looked at another study—performed 15 years ago by a different team—that examined the level of statistical knowledge required to read the NEJM at that time. Like the earlier study, Smith researchers found a trend toward the use of more sophisticated statistical methods.

Advances in statistical software may have contributed to some of the variation in statistical methods over time since software now supports and contributes to the ease of carrying out very complex analyses, according to Horton.

And the changes over time may be driven by improvements in the way studies involving human subjects are reported, he said. The medical profession has widely adopted standard guidelines for reporting on such studies.

Regardless of the reason, the findings are problematic, according to Horton. “The continued trend in these studies poses serious challenges for clinicians and medical educators.”

Horton performed the investigation with Smith alumna Suzanne S. Switzer, who is currently in the master's program in Library and Information Science at Indiana University. It was supported with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is slated to appear in the statistics journal “Chance.”

To read about Switzer's experience performing research as an undergraduate student, go online and click "read what some of our science students are doing."

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