The statistics you frequently hear on TV during medical stories don’t necessarily come from the physician being interviewed. Often, they come from a crucial, but unsung, biostatistician.
These individuals often play a key role in designing studies and make sure they adhere to proper medical/scientific guidelines. Biostatisticians generally aren’t recognized in popular media for the studies to which they may have made important contributions. It’s tough to explain in a one-minute story just what biostatisticians did, say, for a study showing a drug has treatment efficacy for 30 percent of people with diabetes.
A clinician using the new drug with patients is front and center for an interview with a reporter. Biostatisticians remain behind the scenes. To use a sports analogy, they’re best known for helping plan game strategy, rather than playing the game. Many medical experts refer to biostatistics as “the science of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting data in order to understand and improve human health.” That information is at the heart of those study conclusions.
According to Dr. Kavita Batra, a new biostatistician at the UNLV School of Medicine, biostatisticians not only can assist in designing studies; they review the data, perform quality assurance to statistical methods and outputs, and help interpret results of analyses to relay meaningful information to inform public health policies. Academic medicine, she notes, is evidence-based.
When Batra explains what she can bring to collaborations at the medical school, her scientific voice is evident: “I bring my analytic, problem-solving, and communication skills to the School of Medicine. I perform advanced quantitative analysis — modeling, bootstrap, meta-analysis etc. — and have a firm grasp over the survey-based research. With my dental background [Batra is a former dental surgeon], I have a complete understanding of medical terminologies, which I get to apply and integrate with my statistical expertise to various areas across the school of medicine.”
Dr. Deborah Kuhls, the interim assistant dean for research at the medical school, said that in hiring Batra the school found someone who has a skill set for academic medicine that is multidisciplinary. She can work as a key member of interdisciplinary research teams that include physician-scientists, residents, fellows, and medical students. Helping develop funding applications and contributing to proposal and budget development are also key parts of the job.
Public Health Background
Batra, a native of India, received her Ph.D. in public health from UNLV in May. She focused on maternal and child health, assessing the health and financial burden of neonatal abstinence syndrome. Four years earlier, she earned her master’s degree in public health at UNLV, writing a master's thesis analyzing the effectiveness of the national diabetes prevention program in reducing weight and promoting physical activity among adult Nevadans.
“Can’t” isn’t a word used much by Batra. Her personal story is a large reason for that.
“Having had polio has made me stronger,” said Batra, who now is matter-of-fact about the disease she contracted at the age of 6 months. It paralyzed her lower right side, and it took five operations between the ages of 2 and 22 for her to walk well on her own. She says as a young girl she fell in love with numbers because she used to count the days she had to remain in a full-body cast after an operation.
Often it wasn’t the physical problems that caused her the most distress as a young girl. Schools in India, believing her physical problems would translate into teachers having to spend time with her that didn’t involve academia, wouldn’t admit her. “I was homeschooled by my mother. I missed being in school like other kids,” she recalled.
Finally, when she passed all of a school’s entrance exams, a school admitted her. “My intellectual ability overcame my physical disability.” She ended up skipping several grades, quickly catching up with her age group.
Emotionally, she said, her disability was difficult. When other kids were on the playground, she sat on a bench and wished she was there. People gave her strange looks when she moved. People imitated her gait. “Sometimes I cried, but I was disciplined with my studies. If I couldn't be ahead with walking, I’d be ahead with learning.” Other students, often older, began to respect her because she could help them with their studies. Bullying ended.
As a 7-year-old, Batra began asking her parents questions that ultimately resulted in her going into medicine. “I constantly asked, ‘Why did this happen to me? Why am I different?’ The more I talked with them, I wanted to help people through medicine.”
She initially wanted to go to medical school but decided against it because she didn’t think she could move fast enough in an emergency. Instead, she went to one of India’s most prestigious dental schools. “Dentists,” she noted, “are often the first health care professionals to recognize and identify various diseases, ranging from hypertension to oral cancer.”
For five years she practiced dentistry. Then she became a public health officer, working heavily with statistics. “I liked working to prevent diseases like polio,” she said. “I found it challenging and exciting to combine biology, statistics, and social science to address a health problem.”
At the age of 30, she moved to the U.S. with her husband. The couple – he works for Caesars — now has an 8-year-old daughter. In addition to her studies at UNLV, she also has worked as a research coordinator and data analyst for Nevada Orthopedic & Spine Center and as an adjunct faculty member for UNLV, the Arizona College School of Nursing, the College of Southern Nevada, and Southern New Hampshire University (online).
Batra is excited about the statistical research she’ll be doing with the UNLV School of Medicine. “I will be providing statistical consultation for research being conducted by faculty, residents, staff, and students. I will be providing support in empowering researchers in the study planning, developing the statistical models, power estimation, and interpreting results. I think the exciting piece is about the thrill of discovery, learning, and challenging your assumptions. One of the great things about statistics is that each investigation is new and unique, involves new data and hypotheses to explore, and new conclusions to be reached.”