What is Biostatistics? Definition and Application of a Key Medical Term

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A biostatistician works on a computer while sitting at a desk in a health care setting.










For health care professionals, the effort to improve the quality of the services they provide to patients never ends. The goal becomes more vital as health care budgets shrink and the demands placed on health care systems push them to the breaking point. Biostatistics is an important tool in the challenge to enhance health outcomes in the face of stretched health care resources.

The potential of biostatistics to make nurses and other health care workers more effective and efficient is hindered by the many misunderstandings surrounding the technology. Having a clear biostatistics definition is the first step in helping people interested in a career in health care and health care research to comprehend the positive impact biostatistics can have on their profession.

Those who complete a online BSN to DNP program develop an intuitive understanding of what biostatistics is and how best to work as a professional in the field. They learn to apply biostatistics in clinical settings in ways that leverage data analytics technologies to improve patient outcomes and enhance the effectiveness of nursing teams. Read on to learn more about the importance of biostatistics in health care.

Applying Biostatistics to Improve the Quality of Health Care

The National Cancer Institute defines biostatistics as “the science of collecting and analyzing biologic or health data using statistical methods.” The use of statistics in health care dates back more than a century to the earliest application of the scientific method in medical research. Many health care decisions are based in small or large part on the results of biostatistical research. What has changed in recent years is the amount of health-related data available to researchers, the technology available to translate the information into knowledge, and the need to improve the quality and efficiency of health care.

The application of statistics to biological and medical data promises to have a tremendous impact on the provision of health care and prevention of disease. The accurate interpretation of biostatistical data can serve as the foundation for efforts to improve public health and the quality of patient care. As with many burgeoning technologies, however, there is much uncertainty among nursing professionals about the role of biostatistics in health care.

What Is Biostatistics’ Relationship to Nursing?

Familiarity with statistical principles helps nurses understand and evaluate the results of health care studies. It also enables them to participate in medical research projects and communicate the results of biostatistical research to patients and other health care workers in ways that are easy for them to understand. The analytical and interpretive concepts underlying biostatistics correspond to many advanced nursing practices, including the creation of more efficient care delivery systems and the development of individualized care strategies intended to improve patient outcomes.

More Efficient Health Care Delivery

The journal Mens Sana Monographs offers a more practical biostatistics definition from a nursing perspective: “The rigorous and objective conversion of medical and/or biological observations into knowledge.” The knowledge gained from the results of biostatistical research is intended to improve the efficiency of health care delivery. However, converting biostatistical data into insights that can be applied to enhance health care services requires compensating for the “fallibility of human intuition” as well as biases present in the design of biostatistical research.

Nurses must rely on their training and experience to determine the most effective ways to apply the knowledge gained from biostatistical research to ensure that it contributes a cost-effective and patient-centered solution. Research reported in the Journal of Nursing Education and Practice found that training nurses in the effective use of biostatistics not only demystifies the science of statistics, but also makes nurses more efficient and effective by enabling them to apply research results directly in their practice.

Individualized Care’s Potential to Improve Patient Outcomes

A key characteristic of biostatistics is its use in devising individualized care plans for patients. Such plans have been shown to result in fewer hospital admissions and 30-day readmissions, as well as lower hospital costs associated with “high-utilizing patients,” as described in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

Biostatistics contribute to the creation of effective individualized care plans in ways that are “transforming patient care,” according to Keith Stewart of the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Stewart highlights five examples of the successful conversion of biostatistics research into practical medical care. They include genomic tests that make possible individualized treatment of cancerous tumors, whole-genome sequencing to predict a patient’s likelihood of contracting specific diseases, and the use of DNA tests in pharmacogenomics to identify the medications that are most compatible with a patient’s genetic makeup.

How Nurse Practitioners Use Biostatistics

Nurse practitioners can use biostatistics without heavy technical training. In clinical settings, the emphasis lies on the practical application of the biostatistical insights into patient health, not the technicalities. In that vein, health care plans have to be communicated in an easily understood way to patients, their families, and their nurses.

Techniques for Applying Biostatistical Data

Translating the theoretical results of biostatistical research into practical insight entails the use of descriptive statistics, which American Nurse Today defines as “analyses that summarize, describe, and allow the presentation of data in ways that make them easier to understand.” Descriptive statistics are not suitable for use in reaching conclusions about hypotheses in standard statistics. Instead, they work with preliminary data to define problems and indicate areas requiring further research.

For example, descriptive statistics in a health care setting are most likely to entail measuring central tendency: finding the mean, median, and mode.

  • What is the mean age of patients seeking birth control?
  • What is the median patient census by day of the week, grouped by month?
  • What is the mode age of children contracting measles?

Other variability measures include standard deviation and variance, both of which describe the average distance of each set member from the mean of the set. Variance excludes “outliers” from the calculation, which are points so far outside the standard range that they likely are the result of an error.

Improving the Delivery of Patient Care via Biostatistics

One of the greatest challenges facing health care providers is finding effective ways to reduce costs associated with the highest utilizers of their services. Research cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that 1% of patients treated in U.S. health care facilities are responsible for more than 20% of total health care costs, and 5% of patients incur 50% of all costs.

By identifying likely outcomes, biostatistics can provide physicians with data on when to offer preemptive and targeted treatments, reducing the costs associated with misdiagnosis or ineffective treatments. For example, a study presented in the Journal of Psychiatric Research describes a “precision medicine” framework that makes personalized predictions about the psychiatric symptoms and events patients are likely to experience based on a multifaceted analysis of the patients’ existing symptoms.

In the first step of the framework, a Bayesian hierarchical model calculates a population-average trajectory for all symptoms and deviations from the average. In the second step, a separate model applies individual symptom trajectories to calculate the likelihood of the patient experiencing that symptom in the future. The framework achieved “reasonable predictive accuracy” in a case study related to the treatment of schizophrenia that attempted to predict the likelihood of the treatment plan failing for individual patients. Physicians with this biostatistical tool are in a position to prescribe individualized treatment likely to positively affect a patient.

Essential Skills in Biostatistics

A biostatistics definition from a practical nursing perspective must incorporate the specific training and experience required to ensure that nurse practitioners are able to apply the technology in their daily work. Understanding how biostatistics data translates into improved health care delivery and patient outcomes requires strong analytical and technological competencies to gather and interpret the data. Well-developed communication skills enable accurate deployment of custom patient care strategies because nursing staff must be trained to ensure that the individual care plans created for their patients are being followed and are having the desired effect.

The skills necessary to apply biostatistics in clinical settings corresponds to the curriculum of the Regis College online BSN to DNP program. Along with Epidemiology/Biostatistics, the program features Informatics in Healthcare and two courses in Advanced Research Methods for EBP (evidence-based practice). The program places biostatistics early in the course schedule, so the principles underlying the discipline can be incorporated throughout the BSN to DNP curriculum. Rather than preparing students for careers as professional biostatisticians, the program is designed to make students aware of the many biostatistics-related career options that are open to them.

How to Prepare for an Advanced Role in Biostatistics

Two important health care trends converge in the clinical application of biostatistics that result in improved patient outcomes and more efficient delivery of care:

  • The latest data analytics tools provide vital information to health care professionals.
  • Health care professionals use the information to devise strategies and craft individualized care plans.

Nurse practitioners play an important role in realizing the promise of applied biostatistics in health care settings. Programs such as Regis’ online BSN to DNP can help prepare nursing professionals for an advanced role in biostatistics. Students encounter biostatistical coursework early in the program, opening their eyes to the possibilities of its application through coursework taken later in the program. Find out more about the benefits of the program for students preparing for careers as advanced practice nurses.

Recommended Readings
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Can You Earn a BSN to DNP Online with No GRE Scores?
What Are Some Doctor of Nursing Practice Specialties?

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, High Utilizers of Health Care
American Nurse Today, “Research 101: Descriptive Statistics”
Journal of Psychiatric Research, “A Precision Medicine Approach for Psychiatric Disease Based on Repeated Symptom Scores”
Mayo Clinic, “5 New Ways Health Care Providers Can Apply Individualized Medicine to Patient Care”
Regis College, Online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice