Statistical Communication became critical when pharmaceutical companies recognized the need to include statisticians earlier in clinical trial design and trial strategy. The strict requirements of regulatory authorities for granting market access meant decisions made in the clinical trial design could help minimize the sample size of a single study or reduce the time needed for the whole development process; both critical decisions for cost savings and for successful drug development. Statisticians went from being viewed as data analysts to proving their value by being involved from the beginning of the trial design.
With biostatisticians having a seat at the table throughout the clinical trial process pressure has built for them to cogently communicate with a variety of groups. Yes, technical savvy and methodological correctness are prerequisites but communicating with clinical, regulatory and marketing effectively is critical to the clinical trial process and for the biostatistician’s own career development and success. Clinicians think in terms of individuals and their treatment needs, regulatory wants protocols to be met and risks to be reduced while marketing wants the broadest application possible for the new drug. How does the biostatistician explain statistical processes to this diverse group?
Janice Derr in her book, Statistical Consulting: A Guide to Effective Communication, gives five assessments that nonstatisticians use when collaborating with statisticians: Availability, Responsiveness, Timeliness, Completeness and Pleasantness. Note that none of these qualities have anything to do with the actual statistics being presented, and these recommendations are from a 1999 textbook. Skills first presented twenty years ago still have strong application today.
Availability, Responsiveness and Timeliness
The statistician’s ability to meet these requirements is dependent on how well staffed their department is. Is time allowed to be available, to be responsive to atypical requests and to do so quickly? Is your department understaffed so to fulfill these requirements means long hours and disgruntled, overworked employees trying to answer these needs? Allowing time for effective interaction is something not always built into the statistician’s day. Management must recognize the service aspect of the statistician’s role in the development process and staff accordingly.
Having the statistical “chops” to do the work is, of course, a minimum requirement. A statistician’s comfort with their abilities and their confidence in their approach is always a first step in successfully doing the work. But that alone doesn’t capture the need for completeness. Gauge your non-statistical associate’s statistical knowledge. There are nuances to your presentation depending on the level of sophistication your collaborators are looking for. Present your findings in plain English. Equations with variables written out in words may be required but rarely should you use equations with mathematical notations only. Have a well-thought out plan for your interactions. Prepare for the meeting, even if it is meant to be just an informal conversation, prepare a mutual agenda, even if only verbal, treat the meeting as a work session where information is exchanged not just presented and questions are encouraged and allow time to review the interaction and to agree on next steps.
Are you someone who people enjoy interacting with? This doesn’t mean you have to be the life of the party but do you treat others with respect, listen to their needs by understanding the problem they are trying to solve and addressing those needs without pushing your own agenda at the same time? Do you communicate your expertise with a consideration of your listener’s relationship with numbers? Many people are afraid of statistics or have a negative emotional response to numbers. Others want to share their expertise and will actively engage in questioning your results or position. Don’t become defensive. You have an expertise that your associate does not, but your associate’s expertise could highlight an issue or present a new viewpoint to address your joint problem. Openness and common courtesy go a long way to successful communication.