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MSc in Biostatistics in full flow
Author: Susan Erasmus
Published: 12/07/2019

​The MSc degree in Biostatistics that was recently launched by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences' Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, has been gaining ground. Students are involved in projects on a variety of topics, including HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and rape.

But what does the programme entail, and how will it help to address public health and clinical problems?

What is biostatistics?

Biostatistics is the branch of statistics concerned with how we ought to make decisions when analysing biomedical data. It is an evolving discipline concerned with formulating explicit rules to compensate for both the fallibility of human intuition in general and for bias in study design in particular.

Biostatisticians would, for example, look at the prevalence of certain diseases in particular population groups – and try to determine the causes based on the information available. Or they would calculate life expectancy in certain patients, interpret data from certain drug trials, look at the geographical distribution of diseases, or evaluate treatment or prevention methods. This information could be used to improve or design health programmes, or to evaluate treatment and the efficacy of emergency care in a particular health setting.

Why is it important for research?

The collection, analysis and interpretation of data are key components of medical research projects. This not only enables a biostatistician or researcher to select the right statistical test for a particular study and study setting, but it also enables them to do the kind of analysis of the data to interpret the findings correctly – and to do so in an ethical manner, and with academic integrity.

It is also important to be able to interpret the findings of other studies correctly – not just the ones with which one was personally involved. Correct interpretation would make it possible to apply research findings to clinical practice – and would provide a basis for determining policy decisions.

“Biostatistics cuts across all health areas and strengthens research methods, thereby enhancing its rigour," says Prof Taryn Young, Director of the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care and Head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

What does the degree entail?

The course offers rigorous training for those with a background or experience in quantitative or health-related disciplines who wish to pursue a career in biostatistics. The programme would be of interest to potential biostatisticians who require practical and technical skills, as well as skills in the application of principles of statistical reasoning to address public health problems and challenges.

It is a structured master's programme and students complete modules, an internship of three months and a research assignment. The programmatic offering is supported by a dedicated and dynamic team of lecturers from the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Department of Statistics, as well as international collaborators.


The programme aims to develop highly skilled biostatisticians who can use their expertise to contribute significantly to addressing issues in public health and in the field of biomedical science. It is hoped that this programme will also help to fulfil South Africa's need for a skilled and independent thinking scientific workforce with exceptional critical intellectual abilities.

The degree is aimed at students with an interest in and an aptitude for working with technology, statistical analysis and research in the fields of medicine and biology, and who are interested in trying to solve and address challenges faced by the community.


Caption: Dr Carl Lombard, Ms Liesel Esterhuizen, Prof Taryn Young, Ms Tonya Esterhuizen and Dr Birhanu Ayele.

Photo credit: Damien Schumann