Why Be Involved in Research?

By Greg Snow

Statistician Greg Snow, PhD, takes a look at the importance of structured medical research.

Florence_Nightingale_H_Lenthall_public domain image
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

In Tom Clancy's book Debt of Honor, one of the characters makes the comment, "If you don't write it down, then it never happened," which later plays a role in the plot. It's similar for medical knowledge - if a doctor finds an effective treatment, but does not "write it down" or otherwise share the discovery, then it might as well have never happened.  


Medicine and the human body are complex enough systems that discoveries should be verified through independent trials to confirm the findings. If a sports fan notices that his team won more often when he was wearing dark socks, and thus concluded that his wearing dark socks helped the team to win, we would call that superstition. If a doctor noticed that his patients have a shorter length of stay when he is wearing dark socks and concluded cause and effect, then we would still call that superstition. But what if the doctor looks through all the different things that may have influenced the patients and notices that patients who ate broccoli had a lower length of stay? Is that just chance, and thinking that there is causal correlation merely superstition? Or is this a real relationship there? The only way to know for sure is further research in a new population of patients.


One example of great strides in medicine through "writing it down" is Florence Nightingale.  She was a nurse in the British army during the Crimean War. While she was serving at the hospital at Scutari (in modern day Turkey), she was involved in some sanitary reforms (making the doctors wash their hands before touching the patient). Not only did she help with cleaning the hospital, but she carefully recorded data about the mortality before and after the reforms. When she returned to England, she presented this information to parliament and was instrumental in some of the first laws about cleanliness being passed - saving many lives.


Doctors, nurses, and therapists who have ideas about how to better treat patients can do research studies to confirm their ideas. Patients can ask their doctors if there are any studies for which they would qualify. The general public can even be involved in studies that need healthy control subjects. All these will help medical knowledge move forward and make sure that advances are shared with those that it will help most.


If you're interested in getting involved in medical research at Intermountain, contact the Office of Research at 801.408.1991.