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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.

Medical schools rarely require basic course work in statistics for entry, and many schools provide budding doctors with only 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.

``There's a lot of really great research that is happening, but it's not always being translated into practice," he said.

In The New England Journal of Medicine, nearly 80 percent of articles use advanced statistics to justify the latest medical findings, Horton and coauthor Suzanne S. Switzer report in an upcoming issue of the journal Chance. Moreover, those articles use advanced statistics twice as often as they did 25 years ago, while math skills have changed little.

This lack of statistical knowledge may put doctors at risk for manipulation by drug company pitches or even cause them to harm patients.

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.


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