Visualizing Health: A Better Way to Present Health Information

Example of health data visualization for smoking cessation

When it comes to our bodies, data abounds. We all have a blood pressure, weight, cholesterol levels, A1c, BMI, and more. We have risks, too. We might have or be at risk for cancer, or heart disease, or have a higher risk of experiencing a side effect of a medication or treatment than someone else.

In theory, this 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? 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.

That problem is the inspiration behind Visualizing Health, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research.

The overall project principal investigator was Victor Strecher, Ph.D., with research activities directed by lead investigator Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, Ph.D., and additional input from a multi-disciplinary research team that included co-investigators: Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D.; Larry An, M.D.; and Ken Resnicow, Ph.D. 

The Visualizing Health website contains 54 examples of tested visualizations — graphic displays of health information evaluated through research among the general public. The objective was to create a gallery of beautiful and easy-to-make-sense-of graphs, charts, and images that effectively communicate risk information.

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