Moving pictures: Healthcare and “data viz”

My older brother got all of the drawing talent.

I remember watching him – when I wasn’t being shooed out of his room – occasionally glance down at his Topps football card of Lynn Swann and gradually turn a blank piece of drawing paper into a much larger, but intricately identical colored pencil version. The details and rendering were awe-inspiring to me, as all I could muster was a stick figure with what looked more like a baseball than a football in his hands. My talent resided in numbers and math, which, while not as visually appealing – at least not yet to me in those early years – I was happy to pursue as far as it would take me.

Shortly before he passed away, my brother had an architectural class project where he, well, transformed a Rush song (OK, it was from the album Permanent Waves, but Moving Pictures is a better title for this work) into a visual story. You could get a feel for the ebbs and flows of the music, the structure of the song and the feelings portrayed in the lyrics through his visual representation. Alas, it exists solely in my memory now, but its impression lives on…

The recent releases of the Colorado Health Report Card and the Colorado Health Access Survey provide vital insights into the current and available health of Coloradoans, and embody a call to action to take charge of our health and improve the health system in which we strive to provide a better quality of life for all those we touch. There are numerous data visualizations presented within those websites and accompanying reports that are quite effective in their explanatory manner – sans a 3D pie chart in one report, which I will leave for another discussion – that begin to touch upon the underlying stories and ebbs and flows of the individuals and families that comprise these measures and statistics. The illustrated findings and implications uncovered by these reports are distinct in their mission  and considerable in their consequence, but there is more story to be told.

Where do I see such information – as data is just data until you begin to tell a story and inform with it – headed? A blog post at presents an absolutely stunning example of how to inform through a visual story (and please click through the image on that site to see the full visualization housed at the original posting). In this data visualization, one can instantly see and feel this individual’s health through time, the timings and impacts of medications on their condition and get a depiction of this person’s whole story. This visualization technique can be quickly understood and efficiently turned into action by knowledgeable and now enlightened clinicians to act on this person’s whole health through the comprehension of their whole health story.

Now, not everyone should be expected to have the technical abilities to generate such a data visualization of their own health story… but what is to prevent such innovative tools to be created which could put the capabilities of visual health story telling into the hands of everyone? Mobile apps which collect ‘hard’ health data already exist, so marrying such applications with ‘soft’ data inputs – asking you how you feel at certain times of the day, for example – and packaging it into such visualizations would empower the population and the medical community to take up the baton for the health story in all of us.

David Napoli is the Director of Corporate Analysis and Health Care Economics for Rocky Mountain Health Plans. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Health Services Research, with a focus on Biostatistics, from the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health, and has worked and consulted in the health care industry in various capacities for the past dozen years.

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Posted in healthcare, Innovation
  • Ben Miller

    David, thank you for this excellent post. I agree, there is power in data and power in telling our story through data. The challenge, as you suggest, is how to present such data in a way that can be seen. I think Regina Holliday is doing a nice job with this using her artistic talent. I think that many of us researching healthcare have the opportunity to better “show” the results of our work in ways that may make more sense to others.