Uh-oh… I’ve got a feeling this “Anonymous” is actually my old stats/epi professor. Dr. Peterson, is that you? Stop stalking me on the internet!
Well, just in case this is a legitimate question, here’s my legitimate multi-part response.
- THE MATH. Medical students tend to approach any learning experience in a meta-fashion, i.e., “As I’m stuffing this material into my brain, am I also learning a skill that will help me in the future?” This is how we convince ourselves that it was truly worthwhile to memorize lists of drug brand names and generic names, when all this info can be looked up in 1.5 seconds on a decent PDA — “It’s helping me increase my recall ability, which might help save a patient’s life someday!” But when we’re slogging through z-scores and probability tables and relative risk ratios, we find it hard to believe that someday a patient’s life will hinge on our ability to calculate a standard deviation from memory.
- THE TIME-SINK. In a way related to #1, stats/epi does not have a lot of “connection” to the other courses of study that med-students are simultaneously, well, studying. Anatomy relates to physiology, which relates to pathophysiology, which relates to pathology, which relates to pharmacology, which relates to…. etc. But stats/epi just sticks out in the herd like a pink wildebeest, and every moment that you devote to studying stats/epi feels like time which you could have spent studying for a whole interconnected world of other classes.
- PARANOIA. Every med-school professor takes themselves very seriously, and when pushed on “why do we need to learn about the biochemical makeup of RNA, besides for being able to pass the next exam?” will reply with some variation of “THIS INFORMATION PROVIDES A KNOWLEDGE BASE FOR YOUR FUTURE LEARNING AND SKILLS”. And really, how do you argue with a psychic prediction like that? But, when you corner the stats/epi professor, one of the main response themes is: “Well, you’re going to see a lot of research reports and read a lot of journals in your lifetime, and if you don’t have a basic understanding of statistics, then you might not be able to know which studies are legitimate and applicable to real-life!” In other words, “The research world is populated by sneaky bastards who will try to fool you and trick you if you don’t learn their magical language!” This paranoia makes for excellent short-term motivation, but then you get into the real-world of medical practice, and it turns out that you don’t have TIME to read entire journal articles, much less double-check the stats in the Findings section of the article — you just read the abstract, look for any colored “Just the Facts” side-bar boxes where the journal editor has helpfully noted a couple key points from the article, and you move on! You rely on the people who actually LIKE stats and research to do the peer-reviewing for you, and I don’t believe patient-care suffers because of that.
- RETROSPECTIVE USELESSNESS. Looking back on my medical education, there were only 2 periods of time when I directly used statistics to further my education: (a) studying for and passing the Step 1 USMLE, and (b) designing and writing my (required) Family Medicine residency senior research paper. Since then, stats have dropped off my radar screen entirely, and I do not believe my patients have suffered for it! Some concepts from epidemiology still have some small relevance (Number Needed to Treat, False-Positive results) but nowhere the magnitude of importance which is implied in med school.
Well there you are, Anonymous. Them’s my personal reasons, and I stick to them. Thanks for the question! Here’s a silly statistics-related song.
Reason #5: This class has the magical phrase “STAT” in the very title — yet accomplishes nothing.