Biostatistics in the realm of the patient: Advancing medicine and global health
In her two years at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, Professor Stephanie Kliethermes has accomplished quite a bit. While completing her PhD in biostatistics at the University of Iowa, Kliethermes anticipated landing a teaching career at a liberal arts college. She applied for the biostatistician position she holds at Stritch on a whim, but now says that her heart has found a home here. She was hired as the first biostatistician in the Stritch Clinical Research Office, in order to help medical investigators to design their research protocols and analyze their data. However, her position has grown and changed, and she is now Director of the newly formed Biostatistics Center that also employs two Master’s level statisticians.
Kliethermes takes both a holistic and social justice approach to her work in biostatistics and in helping medical researchers. The physicians are experts in their fields, but they may need help with the technical aspects of research design, data analysis, and interpretation of their results. Kliethermes and the Biostatistics Center staff work with medical researchers across the Stritch campus, helping them to determine data collection protocols, perform sample size analyses, and analyze their data. Her expertise in helping investigators write these sections of their grant proposals and publications has garnered her co-investigator status on seven federally-funded research studies led by Stritch faculty. She also has an appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences, where she teaches a graduate course in statistics for medical students who may not be future investigators, but who as clinicians need to be able to critically evaluate published medical research.
Two of Kliethermes’ passions are Bayesian (inferential) statistics and global public health, and how the former can be used to promote the latter. Given that the use of inferential statistics provides perhaps one of the ultimate examples of reason, how can medical research data be informed by the perspectives of faith and justice to help people? Can we use the conclusions that we draw from data to help people and improve health both locally and globally? Ultimately, Kliethermes is interested in how biostatistical data can be applied to the realm of patient care and used to improve health and save lives.
An example of the real-world application of these concepts is Kliethermes’ work with “Statistics without Borders,” a pro bono service organization conceptually similar to the well-known “Doctors without Borders.” Statisticians in this organization help scientists in developing countries to design research projects and analyze and interpret health data in cases where local scientists may not have statistical expertise themselves nor access to experts. These clinical researchers are often working on health problems critically affecting their countries.
This year Kliethermes is volunteering with health professionals from the Community Health Initiative Haiti (chihaiti.org), an NGO providing health services for rural Haitians. With a mission based on the intersection of reason and justice, CHI Haiti’s premise is that it is unjust to let people live in terrible physical conditions, poverty, and/or disease when there are resources in the world that could help them. CHI Haiti volunteers have established several medical clinics in rural Haiti. Kliethermes will help the clinics transition to an electronic medical records system, enabling them to serve more patients more efficaciously. CHI Haiti’s philosophy is based on the medical ethical principal of autonomy, i.e., that the population served can best determine their communities’ critical health challenges and the best solutions; thus they train and employ local citizens.
In 2012, 104 volunteers served over 5,400 Haitian patients. Having recently returned, Kliethermes described her experience in Haiti: “a country filled with so much beauty….it was inspiring, difficult, honest, and real.”
Kliethermes believes that biostatistics provide a powerful tool to advance medicine and thereby help people by improving health and potentially saving lives. She notes that “All kinds of data relevant to health issues are present everywhere you look in society. The question then becomes, how can medical biostatistical data be used from a perspective of faith and reason in the service of justice, in this case for helping people by improving their health?” This question continually inspires her work.