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Lessons from new study could help improve current and future health data visualization tools

Since the onset of the pandemic and the resulting vast amount of complex dynamic data available, health-related dashboards have become ubiquitous as the public, healthcare providers and administrators, and public health and government officials continually reach out for and evaluate vital, accurate information to support decision making. But use as well as direct and indirect impact of dashboards have been poorly understood.

A new study published in BMJ Health & Care Informatics explores decades of dashboards designed to communicate health data providing insight into what makes an effective dashboard.

“The purpose of dashboards is to integrate and transform data into information displays that support decision making. Well-designed dashboards visualize information in a manner that increases awareness and understanding of situations at a glance, providing clear and actionable information,” said study co-author and human factors engineer April Savoy, PhD, a Regenstrief Institute and U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs health services researcher and a Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI assistant professor of computer and information technology. “The best dashboards are designed with a clear understanding of users’ information needs and tasks. With that understanding these dashboards are user-centered and clearly convey accurate and relevant information to inform decision-making or increased awareness.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need to understand vast amounts of data, often from different sources such as number of cases, spread of the disease, trends and other factors to aid both personal and professional decision making. Thus, many dashboards emerged; some more helpful than others,” Dr. Savoy said. “In this age of misinformation and disinformation, it is imperative to evaluate perceived quality of data, credibility of sources, and overall effectiveness. Findings could guide the design of dashboard enhancements and customizations that aid decisions, including which dashboards should be used.”

Leading dashboard conceptualizations stem from information displays in automobiles. The driver doesn’t need to understand the complex mechanics under the hood to comprehend what the dashboard is indicating. Today, dashboard indicators convey information about many aspects of a vehicle’s performance including speed, amount of gasoline in the tank and need to check the engine. Similarly, viewing a user-focused health dashboard obviates the need to understand vast amounts of data as it visually conveys explanatory information about number of cases of a disease, trends and other factors in a way that is user friendly.

The new BMJ Health & Care Informatics study, “Dashboards for visual display of patient safety data: a systematic review,” examined research on dashboards published from 1950 to 2018 and found almost none employed tenets of user-centered design. The review highlighted a paucity of evaluations of intended audiences’ needs as well as noting the lack of testing for effectiveness and user satisfaction.

Authors, in addition to Dr. Savoy, are Daniel R. Murphy, M.D., MBA; Tyler Satterly, M.Eng; and Hardeep Singh, M.D., MPH of the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston and Dean F. Sittig, PhD of the University of Texas.

The study was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (grant: K08-HS022901) and the Houston VA Health Services Research and Development Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety (grant: CIN13-413).

About April Savoy, PhD

In addition to her role as a research scientist at Regenstrief Institute, April Savoy, PhD, is the director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Human-Computer Interaction and Simulation Laboratory, and a core investigator for the Center for Health Information and Communication, Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center. She is also an assistant professor of computer and information technology at Purdue School of Engineering and Technology, IUPUI.

About Regenstrief Institute

Founded in 1969 in Indianapolis, the Regenstrief Institute is a local, national and global leader dedicated to a world where better information empowers people to end disease and realize true health. A key research partner to Indiana University, Regenstrief and its research scientists are responsible for a growing number of major healthcare innovations and studies. Examples range from the development of global health information technology standards that enable the use and interoperability of electronic health records to improving patient-physician communications, to creating models of care that inform practice and improve the lives of patients around the globe.

Sam Regenstrief, a nationally successful entrepreneur from Connersville, Indiana, founded the institute with the goal of making healthcare more efficient and accessible for everyone. His vision continues to guide the institute’s research mission.

About Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center

Established in 1932, the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center serves Veterans from across Indiana and western Illinois. The Roudebush VAMC is one of the largest and most complex medical centers in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and provides acute inpatient medical, surgical, psychiatric, rehabilitation, and neurological care to more than 60,000 Veterans annually. Some of the many services available to Veterans include emergency medicine, primary care, cardiac care, radiation oncology, audiology, community-based extended care and community VA clinics.

About the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI

The Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI is regarded as one of America’s premier urban schools of engineering and technology. It offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that prepare students for careers in a global economy, and is recognized regionally, nationally and internationally for its excellence in teaching and learning, research and creative activities, and community engagement.

John Erickson
Regenstrief Institute
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Regenstrief Institute
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