Medical statistics is the application of statistical knowledge and methods to the field of medicine and medical practice.
Although medical statistics has been a recognised branch of statistics in the UK for more than 40 years, the term does not appear to have come into general use in North America, where the wider term ‘biostatistics’ is used and encompasses the application of statistics (the branch of applied mathematics concerned with the collection and interpretation of quantitative data and the use of probability theory to estimate population parameters) to medical-related data as well as those in the wider field of biology.
My preferred definition of medical statistics is the one I have coined above. The current (June 2009) definition of medical statistics in Wikipedia is, like many things in Wikipedia, an unsatisfactory work in progress. It says that medical statistics is “the field of medicine dealing with applications of statistics to the field of health and medicine.”
An entry in Answers.com throws some interesting light on the history of what we would now call medical statistics, quoting sources that trace its roots to the eighteenth century:
“One tradition [which flowed from Graunt’s and Petty’s early work] was medical statistics, which developed most fully in England during the eighteenth century. Physicians such as James Jurin (1684–1750) and William Black (1749–1829) advocated the collection and evaluation of numerical information about the incidence and mortality of diseases. Jurin pioneered the use of statistics in the 1720s to evaluate medical practice in his studies of the risks associated with smallpox inoculation. William Black coined the term medical arithmetic to refer to the tradition of using numbers to analyze the comparative mortality of different diseases. New hospitals and dispensaries such as the London Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital, established in the eighteenth century, provided institutional support for the collection of medical statistics; some treatments were evaluated numerically.”
A search for the term ‘biostatistics’ or ‘biometrics’ returns many definitions, of which the following are a selection:
“The theory and techniques for describing, analyzing, and interpreting health data.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“The use of statistical tests to analyze biological data” Duke Clinical Research Institute.
“The science of statistics applied to the analysis of biological or medical data.” The American Heritage Medical Dictionary (2004) Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
“Numeric data on births, deaths, diseases, injuries, and other factors affecting the general health and condition of human populations. Also called vital statistics” Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. 2009, Elsevier
“Biostatistics (a combination of the words biology and statistics; sometimes referred to as biometry or biometrics) is the application of statistics to a wide range of topics in biology. The science of biostatistics encompasses the design of biological experiments, especially in medicine and agriculture; the collection, summarization, and analysis of data from those experiments; and the interpretation of, and inference from, the results.” Wikipedia.
“A branch of biology that studies biological phenomena and observations by means of statistical analysis.” WordNet.
“The science of collecting and analyzing biologic or health data using statistical methods. Biostatistics may be used to help learn the possible causes of a cancer or how often a cancer occurs in a certain group of people. Also called biometrics and biometry.” National Cancer Institute.