The irrelevance of statistics-based research to individual patients

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James Penston


Randomised controlled trials and epidemiological studies provide the grounds for much of clinical medicine and consequently affect the lives of millions of patients around the world. But this statistics-based research offers little to individual patients.The ability to generalise the results of these studies to the wider population of patients is unsuccessful. External validity is brought into question by the selection involved in the recruitment process and in the participation in clinical trials. Thus, we cannot know with any confidence to whom the results apply and this has obvious implications for individual patients. Yet, there is a further problem: conventional statistical analysis involves the frequentist approach which entails that probabilities only apply to classes. Hence, the results of this type of research are not strictly applicable to individuals.But even if we set aside the difficulties associated with external validity, there is a more important problem which relates to the size of the treatment effect. Large-scale studies entail that any treatment effect detected will be very small. While this is often hidden by the use of relative risk reductions, once the absolute treatment difference is presented, the paltry size of the benefit becomes clear. This has little importance or relevance to the lives of individual patients and, as is argued, has doubtful meaning.Current medical practice encourages patients’ participation in decisions regarding their care and this includes providing them with sufficient information to enable them to make informed choices about their treatment. However, were they to be told about the problems with external validity and the true size of the benefit – not to mention the many other problems with statistics-based research – it is likely that far fewer would accept treatment than is currently the case.

Article Details

Regular Articles
Author Biography

James Penston, Scunthorpe General Hospital, North Lincolnshire, UK

Consultant Physician/Gastroenterologist


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