In the fight against disease, a picture is worth a thousand lives. While large volumes of data have long been collected by health statisticians, there are now growing efforts to present them visually for a deeper impact on scientists, policy makers and the public.
At a recent meeting of local US politicians hosted by Michelle Obama to discuss the role of exercise in tackling obesity, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) used colour-coded maps to portray trends over time and between districts. “If we had tried to just give them massive spreadsheets, we would have lost the room,” says the institute’s William Heisel. “We had more than 100 mayors, county executives and council people lined up after the talk to ask for information.”
Chris Dye of the World Health Organisation says: “Graphics and videos have more instant appeal than tabulated numbers, and better software and hardware make that easier and faster to do.” He stresses that visualisation could be used much more ambitiously to identify and more effectively treat individual patients. “There is no longer any technological obstacle, though privacy is, of course, an issue.”
For now, evidence of the impact of visualisation on health outcomes is scant. Poor quality and incomparable numbers also risk being further distorted when presented as images. But with data collection still far outstripping their analysis, the potential for exploring such new approaches is considerable.