Simple and multistate survival curves: Can people learn to use them?

Tim Rakow*, Rebecca J. Wright, Catherine Bull, David J. Spiegelhalter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Objective and Sample: This investigation assessed the comprehension of survival curves in a community sample of 88 young and middle-aged adults when several aspects of good practice for graphical communication were implemented, and it compared comprehension for alternative presentation formats. Design, Method, and Measurements: After reading worked examples of using survival curves that provided explanation and answers, participants answered questions on survival data for pairs of treatments. Study 1 compared presenting survival curves for both treatments on the same figure against presentation via 2 separate figures. Study 2 compared presenting data for 3 possible outcome states via a single "multistate" figure for each treatment against presenting each outcome on a separate figure (with both treatments on the same figure). Both studies compared alternative forms of questioning (e.g., "number alive" versus "number dead"). Numeracy levels (self-rated and objective measures) were also assessed. Results: Comprehension was generally good-exceeding 90% correct answers on half the questions-and was similar across alternative graphical formats. Lower accuracy was observed for questions requiring a calculation but was significantly lower only when the requirement for calculation was not explicit (13%-28% decrements in performance). In study 1, this effect was most acute for those with lower levels of numeracy. Subjective (self-rated) numeracy and objective (measured) numeracy were both moderate positive predictors of overall task accuracy (r 0.3). Conclusions: A high degree of accuracy in extracting information from survival curves is possible, as long as any calculations that are required are made explicit (e.g., finding differences between 2 survival rates). Therefore, practitioners need not avoid using survival curves in discussions with patients, although clear and explicit explanations are important .
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)792-804
Number of pages13
JournalMedical Decision Making
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


  • numeracy
  • Risk communication
  • survival curves
  • visual displays


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