What does nursing have in common with statistics?

Florence Nightingale arrived at a military hospital in Scutari, Crimea to find squalor, chaos and death.She left it organised, efficient and a less dangerous place to stay. The organisational skills of Nightingale are well known, and rightly celebrated for saving the lives of many soldiers, but it was through her lesser known abilities that she saved a greater number.

Nightingale found that more soldiers died from communicable diseases and unsanitary conditions than did people in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Upon her return to England she found that three times as many soldiers died during peacetime than at times of war due to overcrowding and squalor in industrialised cities. Armed with this knowledge, Nightingale successfully petitioned for reform, helped by her novel methods of presenting data. Thus Nightingale applied her understanding of statistics to revolutionise Victorian healthcare.


[above is the polar chart pioneered Nightingale in 1858]

Modern nursing has changed much since the Victorian days. Statistics is no longer a tool nurses feel comfortable wielding. Instead statistics, and maths in general, is seen as anathema to the human aspect of our profession. Considered a necessary evil of the nursing curriculum we never imagine statistics could help our patients. The story of Nightingale, and the fact she was the first women elected to the Statistical Society of London, a member of the Statistical Congress and an honorary member of the American Statistical Association should remind us otherwise.

Part of the success of Nightingale was due to a technological boom in Victorian Britain. This led to the collection of huge amounts of data from which knowledge could be gleaned by those with the right skills – much like a gold prospector can sift through dirt to find those precious nuggets. Today we are in the thrall a greater data revolution with petabytes of data available at our fingertips. Can, should, nurses embrace this revolution in the spirit of Nightingale?

Let us be under no illusion: the dawn of ‘big data’ is well upon us and it will illuminate every aspect of our lives or cast us in shadow. Not just in healthcare but in economics, retail, even politics an understanding of statistics is required for us to make sense of the dearth of data available. Let us not be victims of the information age, feeling ever more marginalised in a cold and calculating world. Let us follow Nightingale in collecting data carefully and interpreting it wisely to the benefit of our patients.

Our guest blogger is Nathan Blake who has 12 years experience as a nurse and a masters in applied statistics and another in clinical research. He is currently pursuing a BSc in physics and a PhD on the mathematical modelling of biological complexity.

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