A practical guide to understanding Kaplan-Meier curves

Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2010 Sep;143(3):331-6. doi: 10.1016/j.otohns.2010.05.007.


In 1958, Edward L. Kaplan and Paul Meier collaborated to publish a seminal paper on how to deal with incomplete observations. Subsequently, the Kaplan-Meier curves and estimates of survival data have become a familiar way of dealing with differing survival times (times-to-event), especially when not all the subjects continue in the study. "Survival" times need not relate to actual survival with death being the event; the "event" may be any event of interest. Kaplan-Meier analyses are also used in nonmedical disciplines. The purpose of this article is to explain how Kaplan-Meier curves are generated and analyzed. Throughout this article, we will discuss Kaplan-Meier estimates in the context of "survival" before the event of interest. Two small groups of hypothetical data are used as examples in order for the reader to clearly see how the process works. These examples also illustrate the crucially important point that comparative analysis depends upon the whole curve and not upon isolated points.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Survival Rate