Using the MRSA database to teach students about data analysis and public health

There's no question that the ability to work with information is one that will be required and valued for a long time to come. I think it's imperative for teachers to have students practice this skill whenever an opportunity comes about. The problem for many teachers is finding the time to identify good data sets.

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a serious problem for hospital patients. Six of out seven people who become infected with MRSA, get it from some kind of health-care facility. In 2007, the CDC issued a report claiming that 18,000 people die every year from invasive MRSA infections, a higher number than US deaths from AIDS.

Luckily, the Seattle Times has put together a nice database on MRSA infections that can be freely used by anyone and can serve as a nice teaching resource as well.

Having students work with information from the MRSA database would be useful for instructors who teach graphing skills, statistics, microbiology, nursing, epidemiology, or any area of public health.

Technorati Tags: , 'public health', database, bacteria, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aures, Staphylococcus

Here's how.

A. Get the background.

Pique student interest by having them read about patients with MRSA. The Seattle Times has three articles, interviews, and other resources that can be accessed on-line by selecting the linked titles. Students can read about patients who've been infected, the role of Washington hospitals, and the steps that have been taken to control outbreaks.

B. Get some data.

  1. Go to the Seattle Times MRSA database.
  2. Pick a hospital and click the Search button.

You'll get results like this:

Hospital Seattle Children's
Beds 250
City Seattle
County King
Total MRSA cases 634
2007 161
2006 157
2005 141
2004 94
2003 38
2002 23
2001 4
2000 9
1999 4
1998 3
1997 0

C. Visualize the data.

In other words, graph it.

You can look at the trends in an individual hospital or compare different hospitals to each other. It might also be interesting to divide by numbers of cases by the numbers of beds to get an idea about relative infection rates.

Many different graphing programs can be used for this. I used the spreadsheet program in Google Docs but you can also use Excel or Open Office. I like Google Docs because all the students will see the same interface and it makes it easier to write instructions, and it's free.

1. Examine the MRSA incidence in a single hospital.

  • a. Make a table in a spread sheet and enter the data (I'm using Google Docs here).
  • b. Select the data.
  • c. Open the Insert menu and pick Chart.
  • i-3c0290c563c0cfcb066d1201946c40d9-google_talbe.gif
  • d. Pick columns for the chart type.
  • i-d2c75ab8ac68e9b745ad1a1bd6a0a54b-making_chart.gif
  • e. Add labels, select the check boxes shown in the image, and save the chart. You can even save the image.
  • f. Save the chart when you're done.

2. Compare the MRSA incidence in different hospitals.

I picked two hospitals that are close to the same size. Overlake Hospital, on the East side of Lake Washington, has 331 beds and Northwest Hospital, in Seattle, has 287.

  • a. Set up a table with a column for each hospital.
  • b. Enter the data.
  • c. Select the data.
  • d. Open the Insert menu and pick Chart
  • e. Add labels, select the same check boxes that are selected in the image above and save the chart.


I don't know how things are going in 2008, but you can see from the graph that one hospital is doing better at controlling MRSA than the other.

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MRSA is the new "cooties."

I'm in favor of introducing kids to simple data analysis early on, and I think this is a great module to present.

I just need to stop starting at my own data for a few minutes. My eyes are glazing over. Off to peruse Orac's blog...

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink

This is what is so cool about the Seattle Times. They have done some very good investigative reporting on this issue and others, like the environmental concerns of the Duwamish river and the oil spill off Bainbridge island a couple of years ago, plus an excellent series about the abuse of the practice of sealing of all kinds of court documents so that the public would not be able to research criminal histories of corporations or politically well-connected individuals.

I'm still working on forgiving them for being part of the completely unjustifiable pro-Iraq-war bleating crowd, and recommending a straight GOP ticket in the 2006 elections (thereby supporting politicians who were against their own editorial views - go figure), but the good things they are doing help a lot.

Seattle Times, people are watching and we do care what you do.

I hope the students get an accompanying lesson that teaches them to be critical of big bureaucracies like hospitals (and the news media for that matter), as well as being thorough in their research techniques.