A New Way of Looking at Health

Feb 18, 2014, 3:58 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas, Thomas Goetz

Putting outbreaks of disease into context “Putting outbreaks of disease into context” via VizHealth.org. The VizHealth site and the associated content are available under GNU Lesser General Public License version 3.0 (LGPL-3.0) and Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States licenses.

It’s not always easy to think in statistics.

While that statement might seem obvious, applying that knowledge when it comes to health and health care is anything but.

Think, for example, about your last visit to the doctor. (Doctors, put on your patient hats and bear with us.) In the first couple of minutes, you (we hope) had your blood pressure, weight, and other vital signs checked. You might have also talked about changes you could make—like exercising more or quitting smoking—and how they might decrease your risk of developing a chronic disease or help you live longer.

As a patient, all of this information is valuable, but it is not often meaningful or actionable: what does a systolic blood pressure of 175 actually mean? Exercising regularly might bring my risk for diabetes down, but by how much? And what does that difference translate to for me?

There are lots of ways to answer these questions, but up until recently there hasn’t been much clarity at all when it comes to how to communicate those answers effectively. That’s why we’re so excited to announce the launch of our newest project, Visualizing Health.

Through a partnership with a stellar research team at the University of Michigan and a handful of talented designers led by Tim Leong, we set out to develop and scientifically test ways of visually communicating just those types of health data. We wanted data about data—evidence about how best to present risk information so that people can both understand and act upon that information.

Our goal was to create a new sort of resource for health professionals: a robust online gallery of images that researchers and health professionals can use, modify, and build on depending on what they’re trying to communicate. Want to help someone understand how changing their behavior might reduce their likelihood of heart disease, even if it’s only by a small amount? Let our site be a resource to you.

We believe that Visualizing Health can be a platform for continued work toward identifying best practices when it comes to communicating health data. For that reason, we’ve made all of our images available via Creative Commons license—folks can feel free to use and adapt and modify what we’ve created. (All we ask is attribution; just make it clear where you got the image from).

One of the important lessons we’ve learned through this project is that for any given message, there is no one “best” image. Different elements (color, size of cues, orientation, etc.) work well for different purposes. So play around with the different images. Test out your adaptations. (More about our easily replicable methods, here). And tell us about what you find. This is just one element of a culture of health—making information more clear and actionable, with the hope of making it easier for people to take positive actions in their lives.