Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What is the role of biostatistics in modern medicine?

Biostatistics for Epidemiology
Dr Jonas Edward Salk (L), who developed the first vaccine against poliomyelitis, looks on as Dr J V Acius-Ferante vaccinates a woman.
Dr Jonas Edward Salk (L), who developed the first vaccine against poliomyelitis, looks on as Dr J V Acius-Ferante vaccinates a woman.
Keystone/Getty Images

When we hear statistics like one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime or that the risk factors for breast cancer are family history and age, we know that biostatics were instrumental in coming up with these conclusions [source:]. Biostatistics is used extensively in epidemiology.

Epidemiology is the basic science of public health. It uses statistics and research methodologies to reach conclusions about diseases within certain population groups and finds the causes and risks of certain diseases [source: Centers for Disease Control].

Although the science of epidemiology began by investigating infectious disease outbreaks, nowadays, it is also concerned with heart disease, cancer, stroke, and injuries [source: Loma Linda University].

Biostatistics is used to determine how diseases develop, progress and spread. For example, biostatisticians use statistics to predict the behavior of an illness like the flu. It's used to help predict the mortality rate, the symptoms and even the time of year people might get it [source: CSIRO]. Another well-known uses of biostatistics in epidemiology, was in research for the development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Before the mid-1950s, most medical research was observation-based. During the mid-1950s, Dr. Paul Meier, a leading medical statistician, introduced the world to randomization, a technique where researchers randomly assign one group of patients to receive an experimental treatment while another groups receives a standard treatment. Randomization helps researchers avoid mistakenly tampering with the results by choosing healthier or younger patients to try a new treatment [source: Hevesi].

McCulloch says most people don't realize how important biostatics is to their own medical decisions. For example, you may wonder if that new drug from the pharmaceutical company really works or if it is all hype and a home remedy might be as effective. "Biostatics helps design the clinical trials to make sense out of the data, and help you draw the conclusion whether your home remedies will work or not," he says.

Next, we'll examine the role of biostatistics in cancer research.

More to Explore