Last week I was asked by a colleague to explain a line I used during a presentation: “giving patients access to health data isn’t enough, we need to provide patients with context to go along with it. In fact context may be more valuable than the data itself”. My colleague, new to healthcare, didn’t understand the difference between data and context.
My usual go-to for explaining data vs context is this Wired Magazine article where they re-imagined standard medical lab tests. The blood test in particular clearly illustrates the concepts of data and context. On the standard blood test, vitamin D levels are simply shown as a number: 22 ng/mL. For most people, including me, this number means very little. Is it too low? Is it too high? Is it just right? In the re-imagined test, not only is the number presented, but it is placed on a scale that shows the patient what it truly means:
A few days ago, however, I found a more easy-to-understand example.
I happened to catch the nightly news on one of Toronto’s local television stations, Citynews. What caught my attention was their weather forecast. Citynews has always presented the weather by showing a variety of weather data: temperatures, humidity readings and barometric pressures. I’m sure many of you will find the following graphic very familiar:
In the past few years, Citynews included more advanced weather metrics like UV readings, pollen counts and air quality indices. The latter two metrics are helpful to allergy suffers and those with respiratory issues. When pollen counts are high and air quality is low, people who are sensitive know to take medication and/or minimize their time outdoors.
But therein lies the problem with weather data. Presenting just the numbers means that the viewer has to put that information into their own context. For example, a 100F temperature combined with 40% humidity means that being outside is going to be uncomfortably sticky and hot. But see what you have to do there? You have to take the two data elements and then put them into context based on your own experience. The data only becomes useful when you are able to apply the right context.
Last week, however, I noticed that Citynews had moved past providing weather data and began providing true context about the weather. Here is the graphic that caught my eye:
To create this graphic, Citynews combined multiple data elements including:
- Air quality
- Chance of showers
I was blown away (excuse the weather pun) by what the Citynews weather team had done. They put weather data into context and the result was truly valuable information for viewers. Instead a collection of numbers, Citynews had provided context.
Now admittedly weather data is a bit simpler than clinical data, but if a local weather station can put data into context why can’t we do the same in healthcare?
Of course, healthcare and HealthIT vendors need to solve the problem of patient access to data first. But I don’t believe simply dumping data into the hands of patients and care givers is enough to change health behavior. To truly improve the health of patients and to drive down costs, patients need more than just number and facts. Patients need context.
Step 1: Access
Step 2: Context