Using Statistics to Improve Pediatric Care

As a biostatistician, Dr. Chuan Zhou spends much of his time developing models and analyzing all kinds of data. But that doesn’t mean he loses sight of the patients encased in each string of numbers.

“My passion is making sense of data. I see every model as an opportunity to help researchers improve care for kids,” Zhou says. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”

A principal investigator and biostatistician in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Zhou helps make the center’s research as accurate and powerful as possible. This starts with working with researchers to design their studies.

“I like to get involved from the very beginning, so we can make sure each study gathers the right data with the best quality,” Zhou says.

For instance, Zhou helped design Bright Start, a study led by Dr. Dimitri Christakis that teaches parenting skills to young, first-time mothers. The study delivers different educational content at different periods, and evaluates how that impacts children’s development from birth to age four. Instead of doing a before-and-after comparison of how the intervention impacts participants, Zhou designed a multi-arm randomize-control study with longitudinal follow-ups. He now must compare how participants’ developmental trajectories change over time and whether those trajectories differ because of different interventions.

“The analysis is complicated and we have to use some fancy statistical techniques, but that makes it really fun,” Zhou says.

Zhou is integrally involved in many other studies, including Dr. Rita Mangione-Smith ’s initiative to measure quality of care. This project surveys almost 70% of the Seattle Children’s patients who receive inpatient care, evaluating which medical treatments, procedures and practices improve the quality of life for our patients and which ones fall short.

Zhou analyzes the survey results, helping Mangione-Smith’s team pinpoint which treatments the hospital should keep delivering, which ones need improvement and which ones should be discontinued. For Zhou, it’s an example of how the center uses the latest statistical techniques to improve care.

“Biostatistics has seen tremendous advances in the past 20 years,” he says. “When we see a positive result based on proper study design and statistical analysis, we can be far more confident that it’s because of our intervention, and not because of something we couldn’t account for.”