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Data Visualisation in Medical Communication

In a world of words, a picture paints a thousand data points

KIB - InFlu-Venn-Za by david is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In the increasingly data-rich but time-poor environment of clinical practice, doctors face the escalating challenge of maintaining up-to-date clinical knowledge.[1,2] By 2020, it is estimated that medical knowledge will be doubling every 73 days.[2] How can medical communications help to meet this challenge and ensure that the content delivered is in a clear and understandable format, and can be assimilated quickly?   

One solution is data visualisation – the representation of information in a visual format such as charts, diagrams or pictures. The advent of big data means that we now have access to unprecedented volumes of data, but we need tools to process and understand it. While other industries, such as tech, finance and traditional media, have already integrated data visualisation into their decision-making processes, the medical communications industry is still playing catch-up.

When implemented well, data visualisation makes information more digestible by, identifying patterns, correlations and key messages within the data. However, if executed poorly, data visualisation can lead to confusing, or worse, misleading representations. A quick image search for ‘data visualisation’ will bring up a host of examples, ranging from the dire to the inspired.

Below we describe three key pillars that should be taken into account when developing impactful data visualisations. These are needed to accurately communicate data stories in a way that is accessible and easy to understand.

Comprehension – Communicating a clear message
“People will generally follow the path of least resistance”[3] according to Philologist George Kingsley Zipf. In medical communications, this means the audience doesn’t have time to decipher what the visuals are trying to communicate or why it is relevant to them. We have to invest our time upfront to ensure that the message is clear and meaningful to the audience. 

Given the volume of information published each day and the limited time doctors have, it is important that our designs cut through the noise, grab our audience’s attention and deliver the core idea. However, simple messages accompanied by eye-catching visuals will only get you so far. Data visualisation is not just about making the information look pretty, it must also make the data easier to understand.

Once we have the attention of our audience, it is important that we keep it and reward them for the time they have invested. Layering information within data visualisation allows us to go beyond the key message, providing additional supporting information and the opportunity to interrogate the data. 

Narrative – Providing a context
Within medical communications, we are often looking to establish an unmet need, or demonstrate the efficacy of a product. We are telling a story: placing the data within a context that resonates with our audience and moves them towards a desired behaviour change. 

David McCandless, author of ‘Information is Beautiful’ and ‘Knowledge is Beautiful’, places a strong emphasis on the importance of narrative within data visualisation. More specifically, he talks about the conversion of complex data sets into simple diagrams that tease out unseen patterns and connections.[4] 

The challenge arises when it comes to establishing the balance between aesthetics, resonance and accuracy. Author Reif Larsen cautions that when designing data visuals, care must be taken not to “unintentionally oversimplify, obscure, or warp the author’s intended narrative instead of bringing it into focus”.[5]

Accuracy – Maintaining scientific rigour
Edward Tufte, a pioneer of data visualisation, places a strong emphasis on the integrity of the data being presented. According to Tufte’s six principles of data visualisation, the data should be presented accurately and without unintended context, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.[6] 

Within medical communications, even more so than in other industries, we have a responsibility to ensure that the information we provide is accurate. This information can help shape clinical practice, we therefore have a responsibility to ensure that the information is in no way misleading.

The Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) guidelines state that all artwork including illustrations, graphs and tables must conform to the letter and spirit of the code. Graphs and tables must be presented in such a way as to give a clear, fair and balanced view of matters with which they deal, and must not be included unless they are relevant to the claims or comparisons being made.[7]

Moving forward
In many regards, Tufte’s and McCandless’ approaches represent two ends of the spectrum of data visualisation. McCandless’ narrative-driven data visualisation guides the audience to a conclusion, while Tufte argues that the audience should be given unbiased information and left to draw their own conclusions.  

In medical communications, to obtain the most from data visualisation, we must strike a balance between the McCandless and Tufte approaches. Our ultimate goal is to make data more accessible to patients and doctors. One way of doing this is to use narratives to provide the information in a context that is relevant to the audience. However, at the same time, we must be mindful of the ABPI guidelines and ensure that the information we provide is scientifically rigorous and simplified only to the point of comprehension and not misunderstanding. 

James Duggan is a Principal Medical Writer and Kirstin McKechnie is a Senior Graphic Designer at 90TEN, the Communiqué 2017 Communications Consultancy of the Year and Medical Education Consultancy of the Year. 

1.     Dugdale DC, et al. J Gen Int Med 1999; 14: S34–40.
2.     Densen P. Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc 2011; 122: 48–58.
3.     Zipf GK. Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology
4.     David McCandless. Available at: Accessed October 2017.
5.     Larsen R. Accessed October 2017.
6.     Tufte E. Available at: Accessed October 2017.
7.     Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry, Available at:  Accessed October 2017. 

27th November 2017



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