Data is everywhere in today’s pandemic crisis. This includes an abundance of charts, graphs, and other visual representations of statistics published in all forms of media and in a myriad of formats—each trying to clearly convey health trends and assorted other data.
Now seems like a good time to revisit what experts say about this topic. Here are excerpts from Health Literacy Out Loud (HLOL) podcasts in which experts share their how-to tips about dealing with data.
- Figure out whether to even use data. Dr. David Nelson is a physician, epidemiologist, and co-author of the booklet Making Data Talk: A Workbook, published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services. Dr. Nelson recommends thinking about whether to even use data. He looks at this from the reader’s perspective, saying that “Generally speaking, people think about numbers for their own particular purposes and not just as a scientific argument of sorts. They look for some sort of practical application in their own lives or to people that they know.” Dr. Nelson poses questions to consider when deciding whether to use data: Are we trying to just instruct you about what you should be doing? Are we trying to increase your knowledge about a topic? Are we trying to help you choose between one of two perfectly acceptable options? Are we trying to persuade you to do something?
Clearly Communicating Scientific Information (HLOL #83), a HLOL podcast interview with Dr. David Nelson.
- Present data as simply as possible, in logical order. Sally Bigwood is co-author of the excellent resource, A Designer’s Guide to Presenting Numbers, Figures, Charts. She recommends using “plain figures.” This means presenting data as plainly and simply as possible, without decoration. Bigwood says that doing so “lets numbers speak for themselves.” She also recommends listing figures in a logical order such as from largest to smallest, in alphabetical order, or from most to least common.
Presenting Data in Ways that Work for Most People, Most of the Time (HLOL #113), a HLOL podcast interview with Sally Bigwood.
- Put numbers into context. Brian J Zikmund-Fisher, PhD is a professor, researcher, and expert on communicating risk and other number-based health messages. He has twice been a guest on HLOL. Dr. Zikmund-Fisher stresses the importance of putting numbers into context. Using a clinical example, he says “The number isn’t the point. What she needs is to know how that compares to the average woman’s risk. She needs to have a reference standard that enables that number to have some meaning.” Dr. Zikmund-Fisher and others developed a free online tool called Icon Array that visually communicates risk within the part-whole relationship. He explains this as “the ratio of what proportions of people are affected as compared to the full population that might have had it happen to them.”
When Communicating Risk, Consider What Patients Need and Want to Know (HLOL #102), a HLOL podcast interview with Dr. Zikmund-Fisher
Making Lab Test Results More Meaningful (HLOL #175), a HLOL podcast interview with Dr. Zikmund-Fisher
Stay safe. Be well. Thank you for helping communicate data in ways others can understand. ~Helen
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