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Rhiannon Whitaker is a senior research fellow and associate scientific director of the North Wales Organisation for Randomised Trials in Health (NWORTH) which is part of Bangor University.
WHAT have Florence Nightingale and Professor Sir Richard Doll got in common?
They both revolutionised the health of the people of the world and saved many lives but neither were doctors, and neither invented earth-shattering drugs.
One changed healthcare through revolutionising nursing practice and the other by understanding the harmful effects of smoking. They achieved these feats because they were both remarkable statisticians.
We expect a great deal from our doctors. For much of last century there was a pervasive understanding that “doctor knows best”. With the rise of the internet people are increasingly challenging that notion. There is a wealth of information of varying qualities easily available with so much data that it’s easy to drown.
However, more data does not necessarily make better knowledge. Good data, skilfully analysed, drawn from carefully designed studies set up to answer well-crafted questions, is vital.
Doctors need precise, reliable information to decide what treatment is best for you. Those who control health budgets need good information to make the best decisions about how that spending is deployed to improve the wellbeing of the nation. I am a statistician whose job it is to help the health community collect and analyse the best data available.
Many people think that clinical trials are the same thing as drugs trials, where new medicines are tested for safety and to see if they work. While drugs trials are important in taking steps to develop new treatments it is also important to address questions about therapies and other interventions that have a direct effect on people’s quality of life.
I, with a range of specialist teams, design, run and analyse a wide range of clinical trials investigating questions which focus on quality of life. This can range from how to help young people have enough information to help them manage their own diabetes to how to educate care workers to recognise how aware people with advanced dementia are.
Sometimes I get involved with projects that use different statistical techniques to answer questions. I recently won grant funding to hunt through the world’s scientific literature to find the best methods of reducing rates of unintended repeat conceptions in teenagers. While teenage pregnancy rates are falling in Wales, they are still higher than in England. Girls who may be vulnerable, for example if they are care leavers or find themselves homeless, are more likely than others to become pregnant. Girls who have experienced one pregnancy are more likely to conceive again while still teenagers. For these young people and their babies the consequences for their health and wellbeing can be lifelong. Finding effective and affordable methods of reducing the rate will help protect some of our most vulnerable citizens*.
So if you are asked to take part in a health research study, please consider helping out. It not only helps us to answer some very valuable questions for the greater welfare of all, but – and somewhat surprisingly – research has shown that even if you are allocated to the treatment as usual or the placebo arm of a trial, on average you will do better than if you don’t take part in research.
To contact Rhiannon please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This project was funded by the NIHR Health Technology Assessment Programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the HTA programme, NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 5th November, 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.