How Design Can Improve Diagnosis

It’s that time of year when bloggers announce their “best of” awards. Here’s a health 2.0 tool from MIT and GE that has the potential to help doctors make better diagnoses, and it got recognition for its artistic interface. Co.Design, a Fast Company site that writes about the intersection of business and design, included a symptom-mapping tool called Health InfoScape in its list of 22 best infographics of 2011.

Health InfoScape is based on data from 7.2 million files from the Medical Quality Improvement Consortium, GE’s electronic medical records database. The interactive graphic uses a web of nodes to visually draw associations between conditions and symptoms; color relates to category and node size relates to prevalence. Users can toggle between male and female maps as well as a map presented as a web or as a ring. MIT scientists and developers came up with a design that’s quite simple ― considering what’s under the hood.

“It’s such an unprecedented data set,” Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab Carlo Ratti said in a press release. “The first step was visualizing it.”

So who can use it? Co.Design calls it “a hypochondriac’s dream!”

It is a patient tool, but it can be very easy to draw the wrong conclusions — or miss the right ones. For example, according to the graphic, lower leg pain in females is strongly correlated with osteoathrosis. The term refers to a type of arthritis, a degenerative joint disease typically associated with old age. So even though the graphic turns arthritis up as a strongly related condition, common sense says it’s not likely to be what’s bothering a teenage girl with leg pain. However … it might be. And that’s where this map can help doctors to make the right diagnosis.

In his book “How Doctors Think,” Dr. Jerome Groopman provides some insight as to what goes on inside doctors’ heads during patient visits.

“Research shows that most doctors quickly come up with two or three possible diagnoses from the outset of meeting a patient ― a few talented ones can juggle four or five in their minds,” Groopman writes.

That’s similar to what this infographic does when it presents a single condition’s top three associations. In the case of a teenage girl with leg pain, the graphic might be at odds with the doctor; though the graphic shows that arthritis is commonly associated with leg pain, it’s probably not in a doctor’s list of top three possibilities when examining a teenage girl. Yet 294,000 children in the United States under the age of 18 have juvenile arthritis, according the to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When making a diagnosis, a look at Health InfoScape can help remind a doctor of all the possibilities — and there are many. Groopman says that doctors develop their diagnoses from a very incomplete body of information. He tells patients that when being diagnosed, they should always ask their doctor, “What else can this be?” A condition association graphic like Health InfoScape can help a doctor to move beyond choices a), b) and c) and interactively explore other possibilities.

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