Nurses employ the basics of statistical analysis every day, even if it might not seem obvious at first glance. For example, if a patient reports chest pain, you would immediately suspect heart or lung problems. Statistically, those are the most serious reasons for chest pain, and those are the conditions you would assess first.
Experience and instinct aren’t enough to help you make the right decisions in patient care. Understanding medical research and how it applies to current practice means nurses must be able to interpret statistics. Learn why understanding statistics is critical to becoming an accomplished nurse.
What is statistics?
Statistics is defined as “a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of masses of numerical data.”1
An example of the power of statistics can be seen in the common act of taking a patient’s blood pressure at most clinical visits, hospital stays, and even prior to donating blood. Once you obtain the number, it only has meaning when compared to a database that cross-references blood pressure with the statistical chance of developing medical conditions. Having consistent blood pressure of 130/80 mm Hg or higher indicates an increasing statistical probability of developing serious medical conditions such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke or kidney disease. This knowledge enables nurses to recommend lifestyle changes and treatments to help patients lower their blood pressure to a safe number.2
Interpreting descriptive statistics
The type of statistics that nurses interact with daily is called descriptive statistics–numbers such patient weight, height, blood pressure and heart rate. The data from individual patients is then compared to a database of accumulated data.3 For example, nurses can calculate a patient’s body mass index (BMI) using a BMI calculator, but that number has no meaning unless it’s compared to a database of BMIs to determine which percentile category the patient’s number falls into. Once the BMI category is determined, nurses can make dietary and physical activity recommendations for staying within or moving to the normal range.4
Why statistical knowledge is vital
“It is important for nurses to be able to read research in order to apply evidence-based practice to the patients they care for,” says nursing consultant Dr. Pamela Stokes, MHCA, DNP, RN. “Some new methods are statistically significant and sound, while others may need more investigation. For nurses to be autonomous in their practice, they have to know how to interpret findings. Statistics are used with everything from disease prevalence to mortality rates to the effectiveness of new treatments.”
Nursing’s role in developing science-based treatments
Dr. Stokes emphasizes the role of scientific patient treatments from the very beginning of the nursing profession. “Our founding mother, Florence Nightingale, noticed that, during wartime, patients were continuing to die despite nurses’ efforts. Florence documented observations of their practices–the first nursing notes and early nursing research–and began changing variables. Soon she separated the sick from the well and the expecting mother from the ill. Wounded and surgical patients received more frequent care. Basic handwashing and cleanliness were required. Every nurse documented routine care during each shift. Patients soon began getting better.
“Today, nurses are with their patients during the entire shift. They are the ones seeing responses to medications, treatment, and procedures. Nurses can do research much like Florence did if they understand how to show the significance of what they are seeing. They can also implement others’ research and improve care if they know why they are doing what they are doing. That takes understanding of statistics.”
Incorporating statistics into patient care
“Nurses have been known for decades as patient advocates,” explains Dr. Stokes. “It is truly in our nature and within our professional duties to advocate for our patients and their well-being. We are also unofficial educators. Whether providing inpatient or outpatient services, nurses are educating clients, families and others to ensure they understand what is happening. We advise how to perform exercises, treatments, and other practices; how and why to take medications; where to get resources; and overall, how to improve their well-being. This imposes upon our profession the responsibility to incorporate relevant research into our knowledgebase for the sake of understanding our field.
“Whether intentionally or not, we are taking research findings, led by statistically significant results, and implementing what they say into our practices and guidance. Legally, it is invaluable that we understand the statistics behind the research so that we ourselves save lives and provide sound guidance. This is important not only for the sake of our patients, but to protect our own licenses, by not taking someone's word for sound practice, but understanding why it is true.”
Nursing and continuing education
“Nurses must be lifelong learners,” Dr. Stokes explains. “This involves staying aware of the latest trends in health care and new practices in the field. Even if nurses rarely dig deep into reading journals themselves, they will find themselves having to implement new practices multiple times a year throughout their career.
“The savvy nurse, and in particular nurse leaders, often keep abreast of new research monthly as new journals are published. Various professional organizations also publish scholarly work routinely, weekly or more often, as a part of keeping nurses aware of the latest discoveries in their specialties.”
Regardless of their type of practice, every nurse specialty or discipline should know how to interpret research. “There is good research and bad research,” Dr. Stokes explains. “Some research studies may affect nursing and our practices more than others. I truly feel it is up to our profession to guide others on how we should practice. Of course, nurse researchers actually perform the research, but all of us should be aware of how to use it.”
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- Retrieved on June 20, 2023, from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/statistics
- Retrieved on June 20, 2023, from cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm
- Retrieved on June 20, 2023, from statology.org/importance-of-statistics-in-nursing/
- Retrieved on June 20, 2023, from nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm