Matt Brierley and Glynn Godwin | 24.06.2022

Bringing clarity to the complex: improving communication approaches in a data-rich world

‘Putting the viewer at the centre and using advanced data visualisation techniques and interactivity will elevate what we do from evidence dissemination to evidence activation’

As medical communication specialists we spend our working hours deciphering complex data and placing that in a broader context to make the information relevant to different audiences, primarily healthcare professionals (HCPs) and their patients.

This has always been a challenge and now this challenge is evolving; as such, this requires us to rethink how we handle and communicate data. Two key factors are driving this evolution: we are all getting busier and HCPs are no different, with time becoming an ever-increasing precious commodity. In parallel, not only is the volume of information exploding, but the complexity of the data is also on the rise. This complexity is often driven by the introduction of more complex clinical trial designs (for example, bucket and umbrella trials), increased scrutiny of real-world evidence (which by its very nature is ‘messier’ than a clinical trial due to the wider spectrum of patient subpopulations being assessed) and the application of artificial intelligence to allow large and previously impenetrable databases to be examined.

Here at Ashfield MedComms, we have taken the time to pause, take stock of the situation and proactively set ourselves a new goal: can we present extraordinarily complex information in such a way that we minimise the burden of deciphering the data and make it immediately relevant and accessible? Our initial step has been to identify specialist data visualisation designers and create an environment whereby they can partner with our scientific experts in a meaningful and impactful way. Their goal is to create innovative and game-changing communication tactics that break the mould and to discover new approaches to data presentation.

The need for an engaging approach to the communication of complex health-related data is widespread and no longer confined to ‘traditional’ medical channels. During the initial period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public were glued to their screens, watching complex medical and statistical data presented directly from leading HCPs that allowed them to make informed decisions about their health.

We applaud the BBC news channel for rising to this challenge. Throughout the pandemic the BBC has provided a large collection of data imagery for our consumption. Striking an important balance of including the right level of detail to inform while, at the same time, ensuring people can decipher the information efficiently and effectively. On their website, the BBC Visual and Data Journalism team provided numerous examples of data presentation, often as infographics. Importantly, they also included interactive and sophisticated tools, such as bubble maps representing various parameters, allowing the users to personalise their data journey.

At Ashfield MedComms we recently completed a project where we applied our new, innovative approach to data visualisation to the data extracted as part of a scoping literature review. The challenge was to communicate a large amount of complex data to a time-poor target audience. Assessment of the literature and insights from the authors indicated that diagnostic data is often reported in a text and/or tabular form that can pose barriers to the speed and ease with which readers can extract relevant information. We set ourselves the bold challenge to try to revolutionise data presentation for literature review manuscripts such as this.

We were focused on engaging the viewer in such a way to optimise information comprehension and retention, and adopted a mix of visual metaphors and graph types. The result was a resounding success; a user-experience analysis indicated a 31% reduction in the time taken to extract five key information points from the visuals we created versus traditional data tables.

As communicators it is our role to inform and engage HCPs about the amazing discoveries and data generated by their peers. We think application of the data visualisation process we are developing will have two major positive outcomes. The first is that we can save the audience time and effort by presenting the information in a more digestible way. The second is that understanding of the information will be improved and, importantly, retention of that information will be more durable.

We are taking our deep understanding of the science and adding true creativity coupled with established design principles. Putting the viewer at the centre and using advanced data visualisation techniques and interactivity will elevate what we do from evidence dissemination to evidence activation.