amastyleinsider

February 21, 2012

Incidence

Filed under: statistics,usage — amastyleinsider @ 9:55 am
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In medical contexts, incidence is most often used in its epidemiologic sense, ie, the number of new cases of a disease occurring over a defined period among persons at risk for that disease. When thus used, incidence may be expressed as a percentage (new cases divided by number of persons at risk during the period) or as a rate (number of new cases divided by number of person-years at risk).

Reporting several incidence values in the same sentence can nearly always be accomplished using the singular form (eg, “the incidence of nonfatal myocardial infarction during follow-up was 10% at 6 months, 19% at 12 months, and 26% at 18 months” or “the incidence of clinical stroke decreased significantly, from 7.6 to 5.3 per 1000 person-years in men and from 6.2 to 5.1 per 1000 person-years in women). However, in rare instances, sentence construction may necessitate the use of the plural, which of course is… what, exactly? The understandable urge to simply add an “s” at the end of the word to form the plural results in incidences — a form not found in most dictionaries and a clunker of a word if ever there was one. Writers wishing for a more mellifluous plural sometimes use incidence rates, a valid term but one perhaps best reserved for reporting incidence values expressed as actual rates rather than simple percentages. Moreover, incidences is sometimes used when reporting values either as percentages or as rates, in the latter case missing a valuable opportunity to emphasize that rates rather than percentages are being reported.

Thus, it is perhaps best to use incidences, awkward as it may be, when reporting multiple incidence values as percentages and incidence rates when reporting such values as rates, eg, “at first follow-up, the incidences of falls resulting from frailty, neuromuscular disorders, or improper use of mobility devices were 15% (95% CI, 10%-20%), 12% (95% CI, 7%-17%), and 12% (5%-19%), respectively” or “the incidence rates for falls resulting from frailty, neuromuscular disorders, or improper use of mobility devices were 5.1, 6.3, and 4.6 per person-year, respectively.” Incidentally, these 2 examples report occurrences (falls) rather than diseases or conditions, and so represent 2 instances reporting the incidence of incidents.

To further muddy the waters, incidence is sometimes confused with prevalence, defined as the proportion of persons with a disease at any given time (ie, total number of cases divided by total population). Thus, whereas incidence describes how commonly cases are diagnosed, prevalence describes how widespread the disease already is; on a more personal level, incidence describes one’s risk of developing the disease, whereas prevalence describes the likelihood that one already has it. The confusion between the terms is perhaps attributable to the occasional use of prevalence in place of incidence in the study of rare, chronic diseases for which few newly diagnosed cases are available; however, this circumstance is unusual, and incidence and prevalence should always be distinguished from one another and used appropriately. (See also §20.9, Glossary of Statistical Terms, in the AMA Manual of Style, p 872 in print.)

Whereas prevalence is often used in general contexts to indicate predominance or general acceptance, the circumstances calling for the use of incidence in general contexts are quite few and become fewer still when one takes into account that incidence is often used when incidents (the simple plural of incident) or instance (again denoting an occurrence) would be the better choice. Perhaps incidents or instances was intended but never made it to the page — as is so often the case with homophones and near-homophones, even the careful writer who usually would not confuse incidence, incidents, and instance might one day look back over a hastily typed passage only to see that a wayward incidence has crept in; if the passage is hastily edited to boot, the error might well go unnoticed until the passage is in print and a discerning reader takes pains to point it out in a letter or e-mail. The plural form, incidences, has virtually no use outside of the epidemiologic discussed above, although it has been used to subtly disorienting effect by translators rendering the Kafkaesque works of Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1904-1942) into English, most notably when rendering the 1-word title of Incidences, Kharms’ 1934 collection of absurdist critiques on life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. However, writers who are not political dissidents aiming for absurdist effect — presumably all medical writers — would do well to proofread carefully and often. — Phil Sefton, ELS

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