Not Just a Pretty Picture

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published health risk data in a way that only a researcher would love (’s Hit & Run blog links to the subscription-only charts here in case you want to marvel at the ugliness). Luckily The New York Times took notice and painted a picture that everyone can appreciate. Can good design can make a difference in health care?


Posted in: hc's problem list | policy issues | trends & principles





One Response to “Not Just a Pretty Picture”

  1. Edward Tufte has definitely transformed the Times’s infographics. Nice.

    But wait a minute – something major is missing. JAMA reported in 2000 that the third leading cause of death is medical error. Why doesn’t that show up on the charts?

    I can’t get at the original JAMA piece, but I did find this earlier quote, from 1995: “Over a million patients are injured in U.S. hospitals each year, and approximately 280,000 die annually as a result of these injuries. Therefore, the iatrogenic death rate dwarfs the annual automobile accident mortality rate of 45,000 and accounts for more deaths than all other accidents combined.”

    Bates DW, Cullen DJ, Laird N, Petersen LA, Small SD, Servi D, Laffel G, Sweitzer BJ, Shea BF, Hallisey R, et al. Incidence of adverse drug events and potential adverse drug events. Implications for prevention. ADE Prevention Study Group. JAMA. 1995 Jul 5;274(1):29-34.

    An argument could be made that such a patient died of infection. But that’s no more informative than saying a gunshot victim died of hemorrhage – it doesn’t get to the cause, the thing you need to watch out for.

    I think this isn’t just an academic issue. That great infographic realistically creates a sense of what there is to fear, and in my talks with lay people, that fear leaves them understandably concerned about getting good healthcare. What it fails to do is alert people to the need to be actively engaged in their own care, with their eyes wide open about where the risks are.

    Is there any way we can get the chart updated to include medical errors?

    (In short, yes, good design can make a difference in health care, because it conveys information, and information is power. Let’s get on with it.)

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