Why Use Data Visualization in Health Communications?

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I’ve never been to a presentation that started off with the audience drawing pictures, but it was a great place to start on the topic of data visualization. Everyone at last night’s Evening Rounds event was asked to draw as many representations as we could of two numbers. Starting her introductory overview of data visualization, presenter Ana Crisan told us that this drawing exercise has been a good eye-opener for those working in the field.

Ana turned to her area of research: the use of data visualization to interpret health data.  Health decisions can be stressful and difficult; making them with unclear information can make the situation worse. Taking research findings for use in health settings requires some shaping, and this is where data visualization can shine if it’s done right.

Many people struggle with numeracy– the ability to use math in everyday life. Research results are represented by numbers: how many people from a group benefitted from an intervention, or what the 5 year survival rate might be if a certain drug combination is used, for example. Data visualization translates research findings into images so it may be more readily understood.

Designing effective data visualization tools requires testing several options with your intended audience first, Ana stressed. She showed us some messy examples that left me confused, and then clear ones, so I see what she means. Audience is everything. Effective data visualization is a strong way to support health decision making. It can play a significant role in health literacy (the ability to understand and interpret health information). Learning more about how to make it work for better individual and public health is a great work in progress.

Many thanks to the organizers for Evening Rounds. This is an event series that highlights health communications and social media. It grew out of casual meetings of a number of us in the hcsmca  (health care social media Canada) community connecting here in Vancouver in real life (gasp). I hadn’t been to an event in a while and it was nice to be back. I look forward to the next one!


Photo: Patrick Dinnen, Flickr (Creative Commons)

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