Archive | Communication

Visualizing Health

From the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research

We’re starting to see the fruits of all the excitement about data visualization and health, notably this thorough report from Visualizing Health, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research.

As they state,

In theory, data can help us make better decisions about our health. Should I take this pill? Will it help me more than it hurts me? How can I reduce my risk? And so on.

But for individuals, it’s not always easy to understand what the numbers are telling us. And for those communicating the information – doctors, hospitals, researchers, public health professionals — it’s not always clear what sort of presentation will make the most sense to the most people.

Their web site contains examples of tested visualizations, and what’s especially nice, they’ve done research assessing reactions from the general public. They’ve created a gallery of graphs, charts, and images, and they’ve done the hard work of evaluating them.


from Visualizing Health, one of their data visualizations

one of their data visualizations

Among the goodies, a “wizard” tool to help you learn more about a risk you want to communicate, and a sample risk calculator that shows off some of the best design concepts.

I like the way they’ve identified use cases:

  • Tradeoffs between medication or treatment options?
  • Relating biomarkers (such as BMI or cholesterol levels) to risk?
  • Health risk assessment output?
  • Population risks: disparities?
  • Population risks: emergent disease (“Should I worry about that measles outbreak?”)
  • Understanding multiple side effects?Understanding unique side effects?
  • Motivating a risk-reducing action?
  • Understanding tradeoffs that change over time over time?
  • Small risks, and understanding how to reduce small risks?
  • Explaining what “average years saved” means for an individual person?

I like the way they describe their methodology, using three tools to test their images (google consumer surveys, survey sampling international, and amazon mechanical turk). Transparency is always appreciated!

And, at the back of the report (why at the back?) a comic book style presentation on visualizing health in practice, using images to educate patients about diabetes.

about health literacy

about health literacy

Crowdsourcing to obtain study samples and conduct epidemiologic surveys

It seemed like a fanciful idea, but the title caught my eye, “Crowdsourcing Graphical Perception: Using Mechanical Turk to Assess Visualization Design” (Jeffrey Heer, Michael Bostock ACM Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), 203–212, 2010).

OK, google “Mechanical Turk” – it is a service from Amazon that matches “workers or Turkers” with “requestors” for small tasks and asked “workers” to assess different visualization  designs.  If you know this already, you are way ahead of where I was last Tuesday. The authors got 186 respondents to assess some  visualizations for a total study cost of $367.77, and the authors were able to compare their study results to published literature to conclude that the method was viable.  If “Turkers” can assess visualizations, then they presumably they can respond to other types of questionnaires or surveys about a range of issues.

This piqued my curiosity, and I searched for more information on this issue.  One of the first questions of concern to any epidemiologist would be the degree and types of selection biases associated with using crowdsourcing and related approaches to obtain what are essentially survey samples and responses. I was surprised to see a growing body of literature in this arena, the most recent of which is Jennifer Jacquet’s article,on the Scientific American blog (July 7, 2011), “The Pros and Cons of Amazon Mechanical Turk for Scientific Surveys” (aren’t surveys some of what we do?).

I found several other studies characterizing the demographics of samples of respondents on Mechanical Turk:

“The New Demographics of Mechanical Turk”, March 9, 2010 Panos Ipeirotis, NYU School of Business,

Ross, Irani, Silberman, Zaldivar and Tomlinson, “Who are the Crowdworkers? Shifting Demographics in Mechanical Turk” CHI 2010,

Going further, some folks are pursuing the idea of using this methodology for subject recruitment in experimental research: “Using Mechanical Turk as a Subject Recruitment Tool for Experimental Research”, Berinsky, Huber and Lenz, October 7, 2011,

Clearly, some very bright minds are exploring the potential of this mechanism.  I would think that we epidemiologists will have a lot to contribute in this arena, and will see great benefits, as well.

Moving Information From FDA to the Public

NAS Colloquium on Science Communication

Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin have earned their stripes working on communication of health information to patients, in particular, clear information about medications. They just presented their work at the National Academy of Science’s Sackler Colloquium on Science Communication (May 21 and 22, 2012). As befits communications experts (they are also MDs), their presentation was crystal clear, and fascinating. The presentation was taped, and video is available at the NAS.

Their presentation illustrated the challenges in condensing complex information, but showed that it can be done. However, we need to commit to clarity and transparency.

Storytelling to Communicate Information and Motivate Patients

The New York Times (February 10, 2011) covered the report of a randomized clinical trial in Annals of Internal Medicine suggesting that a storytelling intervention produced substantial and significant improvements in blood pressure in African-Americans with uncontrolled hypertension. The intervention consisted of 3 DVDs containing patient stories, and blood pressure measurements were taken at 3, 6 and 9 months.

Link to NYTimes article.

Link to Annals article.

A Health Information Website Aimed at Children

The Great Ormond Street Hospital in England runs a website, Children First for Health. It has separate sections for Juniors (age 4 to 6), Kids (7 to 11) and Teens (12 to 18), as well as a section for parents.

The Body Tour lets kids click on a body part or bone and learn more about it.

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