Author(s): Grimes DA, Schulz KF
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Abstract Descriptive studies often represent the first scientific toe in the water in new areas of inquiry. A fundamental element of descriptive reporting is a clear, specific, and measurable definition of the disease or condition in question. Like newspapers, good descriptive reporting answers the five basic W questions: who, what, why, when, where. and a sixth: so what? Case reports, case-series reports, cross-sectional studies, and surveillance studies deal with individuals, whereas ecological correlational studies examine populations. The case report is the least-publishable unit in medical literature. Case-series reports aggregate individual cases in one publication. Clustering of unusual cases in a short period often heralds a new epidemic, as happened with AIDS. Cross-sectional (prevalence) studies describe the health of populations. Surveillance can be thought of as watchfulness over a community; feedback to those who need to know is an integral component of surveillance. Ecological correlational studies look for associations between exposures and outcomes in populations-eg, per capita cigarette sales and rates of coronary artery disease-rather than in individuals. Three important uses of descriptive studies include trend analysis, health-care planning, and hypothesis generation. A frequent error in reports of descriptive studies is overstepping the data: studies without a comparison group allow no inferences to be drawn about associations, causal or otherwise. Hypotheses about causation from descriptive studies are often tested in rigorous analytical studies.
This article was published in Lancet
and referenced in Journal of Biomolecular Research & Therapeutics