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Descriptive Statistics: Reporting the Answers to the 5 Basic Questions of Who, What, Why, When, Where, and a Sixth, So What?

Vetter, Thomas R. MD, MPH

doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000002471
General Articles: Special Article

Descriptive statistics are specific methods basically used to calculate, describe, and summarize collected research data in a logical, meaningful, and efficient way. Descriptive statistics are reported numerically in the manuscript text and/or in its tables, or graphically in its figures. This basic statistical tutorial discusses a series of fundamental concepts about descriptive statistics and their reporting. The mean, median, and mode are 3 measures of the center or central tendency of a set of data. In addition to a measure of its central tendency (mean, median, or mode), another important characteristic of a research data set is its variability or dispersion (ie, spread). In simplest terms, variability is how much the individual recorded scores or observed values differ from one another. The range, standard deviation, and interquartile range are 3 measures of variability or dispersion. The standard deviation is typically reported for a mean, and the interquartile range for a median. Testing for statistical significance, along with calculating the observed treatment effect (or the strength of the association between an exposure and an outcome), and generating a corresponding confidence interval are 3 tools commonly used by researchers (and their collaborating biostatistician or epidemiologist) to validly make inferences and more generalized conclusions from their collected data and descriptive statistics. A number of journals, including Anesthesia & Analgesia, strongly encourage or require the reporting of pertinent confidence intervals. A confidence interval can be calculated for virtually any variable or outcome measure in an experimental, quasi-experimental, or observational research study design. Generally speaking, in a clinical trial, the confidence interval is the range of values within which the true treatment effect in the population likely resides. In an observational study, the confidence interval is the range of values within which the true strength of the association between the exposure and the outcome (eg, the risk ratio or odds ratio) in the population likely resides. There are many possible ways to graphically display or illustrate different types of data. While there is often latitude as to the choice of format, ultimately, the simplest and most comprehensible format is preferred. Common examples include a histogram, bar chart, line chart or line graph, pie chart, scatterplot, and box-and-whisker plot. Valid and reliable descriptive statistics can answer basic yet important questions about a research data set, namely: “Who, What, Why, When, Where, How, How Much?”

Published ahead of print September 7, 2017.

From the Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care, Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.

Accepted for publication August 4, 2017.

Published ahead of print September 7, 2017.

Funding: None.

The author declares no conflicts of interest.

Reprints will not be available from the author.

Address correspondence to Thomas R. Vetter, MD, MPH, Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care, Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, Health Discovery Bldg, Room 6.812, 1701 Trinity St, Austin, TX 78712. Address e-mail to thomas.vetter@austin.utexas.edu.

© 2017 International Anesthesia Research Society