A Cure for the Common Health Visualization

Apr 28, 2014
The Why Axis

Today we have better access to health information than ever before but this means little without greater understanding. Visualizing Health is a weapon in the fight to create a culture of health. The site is primarily gallery of graphics proven to clearly communicate health information to patients.

Visualizing Health was created by the University of Michigan in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and was led up by Thomas Goetz, Entrepreneur-in-residence at RWJF.

The team proved the efficacy of their graphics by testing them with the general public using services like Google Consumer Surveys, Survey Sampling International and Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Results (detailed in their report) were compared and the charts that were easiest to understand and most impactful now feature a star on the Visualizing Health site. The the remaining visualizations are there too and contribute to a sizable library of risk-focused visualizations. In addition, the site's Wizard helps narrow down the gallery by asking easy to understand questions about your goals in communicating health information.


The Why Axis

Visualizing Health has taken a really useful and logical leap by testing which visualizations are best at communicating confusing health information. However, I think they fall short in making these visualization accessible to people who want to use them. The charts are licensed under the Creative Commons but in the end they're un-editable png files. Anyone who wanted to use a chart with different data would have to recreate it themselves.

The risk calculator is a step in the right direction, generating a custom image based on inputs of patient data but it only exists for one recommended chart.

As the website states, Visualizing Health is meant to be a springboard for others. It would be great to see calculators developed for all the most effective visualizations so anyone could generate a custom image by inputting some simple data. In addition, Illustrator templates or even D3 versions of charts would help people more easily modify and extend this library of research-proven graphics.

Another potential opportunity might lie in developing Visualizing Health into a service, a little like HelpMeViz. This service would consult with real physicians, patients and whoever else wanted help visualizing health data. Publishing the results of these consultations would be key. There's a lot to be learned from explaining exactly why one chart variation is easier to understand or why one is more impactful in a given situation. The rigorous testing and research process could also be a part of the service.

In the end, the specific domain focus of Visualizing Health makes it a valuable resource that, with the continued support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I hope to see transformed into a thriving ecosystem in the not so distant future.

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