Data Visualization and Storytelling: Making Medical Data Meaningful for Patients

Clear data visualization — both patient and clinician-generated — stands to expand the scope of exam room conversations and improve healthcare outcomes.

The rise of data science is clearly beginning to have a profound impact on the way healthcare marketers, practitioners, and patients engage with one another. But without compelling visual counterparts to contextualize numerical and statistical takeaways, the insights gleaned from both massive data sets and individual lab tests can easily become inactionable.

For patients, data visualizations can not only help them better understand their own medical journey, but motivate them to take increased ownership of it. When implemented thoughtfully, data visualizations offer opportunities for self-management of chronic conditions, treatment planning, and shared decision-making between patient and practitioner.

Let’s take a look at the specific ways in which data visualization can enhance the practitioner-patient relationship.

Visual Storytelling Facilitates Personalized Healthcare Experiences

The relatively recent rise of wearables and wireless devices has provided a new and simple way for patients to take ownership of their own health and wellness data. This is a huge shift from the days in which patients entrusted their health entirely to physicians, and has empowered patients to take control of their own medical outcomes by monitoring and assessing behavior and adhering to technology-driven, self-motivated treatment plans.

Fitness trackers, for example, collect data surrounding a patient’s physical movements and provide real-time visual feedback based on their temporal patterns. Rather than a lengthy list of numbers reflecting the steps the wearer took each hour, consumers are presented with a colorful bar graph that clearly illustrates their movement patterns on a daily, weekly, or monthly scale.

Using these tools, patients and doctors can collaborate in expanding the scope of their interactions, leveraging the resultant data to gain background information, assess treatment efficacy, highlight anomalies, and ultimately inform healthier lifestyle choices.

Visual Storytelling Improves Patient Health Literacy

Beyond its role in facilitating the collection of patient-generated behavioral information, data visualization has become an increasingly important part of the exam room experience — before, during, and after a patient’s visit to their doctor.

Patient information is ultimately useless if it’s presented in a way that the patient does not understand. Many hospitals and clinics now offer patients direct and easy access to their lab results and medical records, but simply providing a set of numbers or percentages may be insufficient to convey meaning or motivate a behaviour change. Visualizations offer immediate context, showing where a patient’s individual results fall within a wider range, as well as in contrast to their personal medical history.

Similarly, a patient may easily ignore a practitioner’s exam room admonition against excessive consumption of unhealthy foods, alcohol, or any number of things. Visual cues can more effectively communicate the severity of a patient’s current behavior, the potential for negative outcomes if the behavior remains uncurbed, and contextualize their intake in relation to other patients. Visual storytelling can explain the opportunity for improvement in a more accessible and engaging way.

Visual Storytelling is Inclusive

A 2014 study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research set out to determine just what, exactly, patients can and can’t do when they receive lab results in numbers.

When researchers gave patients a table of lab test results formatted exactly as shown in the electronic health record system used by a major U.S. hospital, they found that most patients had difficulty recognizing whether or not their test results — in this case, indicating their haemoglobin A1C levels — were within the standard range.

According to the study, only 38 percent of patients with low numeracy and literacy skills could tell when haemoglobin A1c was outside the standard range, compared to 77 percent of people with high numeracy and literacy skills, even though they were given the correct context in advance. People with low numeracy and literacy skills were also not sensitive to how poor the test result was in thinking about whether or not to call their doctor.

Visual storytelling provides a more inclusive way to ensure patients not only receive but also understand vital information about their own health and use it to make informed decisions toward a healthier future.

Charting the Future of Patient Engagement

As new platforms and technology continue to emerge that empower patients to take ownership of their overall health and wellness, it’s essential for clinicians to adapt to a changing digital landscape. Data visualization is a tool that can not only increase the extent to which individuals understand and control their own health outcomes, but expand the scope of conversation between doctor and patient.

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