Renowned statistician to teach course for veterinarians

Course outlines main statistical concepts used in veterinary research

June 1, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

An acclaimed statistician plans to teach a four-day course for veterinarians this summer, and news of the class has created a buzz among some in the profession.

J. Martin Bland is a heavy hitter in the world of statistics and famous for the Bland-Altman plot, a method of comparing two assay methods in analytical chemistry or two medical diagnostic tests that measure the same variable. His seminal paper on this subject has been cited almost 17,000 times since it was published in 1986 and is the most-cited paper ever published by The Lancet.

Bland also is known for his epidemiological research and clinical trials, with a background as a statistician teaching those studying human medicine.

He's now applying his teachings to the veterinary profession.

The course, titled Introduction to Statistics for Vets, runs July 5 to 8 at the University of York in England, where Bland is a professor of health statistics in the Department of Health Sciences. The goal: to equip participants with the basic skills and knowledge for understanding published research papers in veterinary medicine.

Why is that important? Mike Martin, MVB, DVC, MRCVS, practices veterinary cardiology in the United Kingdom and solicited Bland to bring his expertise to the profession. He believes that when it comes to statistics, most veterinarians are poorly trained. 

"This course should therefore be of value to vets who publish but also those that scrutineer papers for journals," Martin says.

Veterinary Information Network consultant Mark Rishniw, BVSc, MS, PhD, DACVIM, adds that veterinarians are known to "tune out" the statistical component of articles they read, assuming that someone else has done the vetting, which is "a big and often unfounded assumption," he says.

"Statistics is one of those areas that bamboozles, confuses and frustrates most veterinarians," he says. "To have a course dedicated to explaining how clinically relevant veterinary data can be analyzed, what sorts of analyses are most commonly used in a veterinary context, and what each analysis means, and to be taught this by a world leader in medical biostatistics, is phenomenal.

"It’s like being taught quantum physics by Neils Bohr, art by Picasso or cooking by Julia Child," he adds.

Bland, in an online interview with the VIN News Service, dismissed any notion that he's in the same league as such celebrated masters. Yet he admits to having a knack for distilling the science of statistics into information that's practical and easy to understand.

"I see myself mainly as a populariser of statistical methods in health research. I am finding veterinary medicine an interesting new area for me to explore," he says.

Bland is teaching the master's-level course with fellow University of York statistician Catherine Hewitt. He describes it as a module for those working in health sciences or evidence-based practice, though it assumes no previous knowledge of the subject matter and focuses on understanding statistical techniques commonly used in published research rather than teaching students how to perform statistical calculations.

The course is based on eight lectures and associated practical exercises, which are either extracts from research papers or full papers with a series of questions, including why the statistical methods were used and what they mean.

An optional online assessment will follow the intensive course several weeks later. Completion of the assessment will earn attendees a course certification.

"What makes it specific to vets is not the course material, which is not veterinary at all at the moment, but that for this run I have specified that only people involved in veterinary medicine can attend," Bland explains. "They will be all vets together. I expect them to teach me a lot about veterinary medicine and I hope to get some offers of data which I can use in future courses."

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