Data is Good. Context is Better.

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:
Reimagined Blood Test - Vitamin D

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:

CityTV Weather Graphic 5 - Normal Forecast

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:

CityTV Weather Graphic 3 - Context

To create this graphic, Citynews combined multiple data elements including:

  • Temperature
  • Humidex
  • UV
  • Pollen
  • Air quality
  • Chance of showers
  • Winds

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

About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.


  • Great insights into healthcare data. Of course, those in healthcare would argue that it’s too complex to add the context. For example, your lab results chart is good, but sometimes it’s appropriate for the lab result to be outside the normal condition. These exceptions scare people. However, I’d argue that people are able to get these “normal” values on Google already. So, is it really that different? Plus, these exceptions can provide the patient and provider to have a conversation about the results that might not have happened otherwise.

  • Appreciate your comment John. I think your statement is likely one of the reasons why vendors shy away from adding contextual information – fear of the consequences should someone use it “wrong”. Given the litigious environment it’s probably a legitimate risk. I hope we can overcome this fear. I wonder if there was a similar debate about publishing recommended daily dosages of vitamins or what the daily sodium intake should be. Those with sodium issues know better than to follow the standard guidelines. Why can’t lab results and other clinical data be treated the same way?

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