Hospital Impact: To get value from data, healthcare orgs must tell a story

More and more each day, it seems, healthcare organizations are finding themselves totally immersed in and dependent upon data. This hyper-reliance on data has led them to ask some very important questions:

1) What is the data telling us?

2) How do we use it to change our practices in order to:

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  • Improve patient care and outcomes?
  • Mobilize staff to act in evidenced-based ways?
  • Open new market space?
  • Reduce utilization and operating costs? 

Like many organizations, hospitals and physicians’ offices alike are learning that the value of data is in the visualization of the insights. Data becomes information and information yields insights. To literally “see” those insights--tell-tale patterns and predictive analytics--data needs to be converted into a visualization and then into a story. 

Visualization sounds easy: Simply draw some graphs, charts and dashboards, right? But because the brain is a pattern-making machine, it is not happy unless it can convert data into a meaningful story that resonates with what it knows already.

Moreover, it really doesn’t want to “see” new data or listen to why the new way of delivering medicine is better than the old. Remember, as the neurosciences teach us, the brain really does hate to change. 

This “data visualization” is something we’re working on with several of our clients, and it’s proving to be quite a challenge. I’d like to share some approaches that have worked for them so that you, too, can learn how to make your data come alive, enabling you to “see, feel and think” about it differently--because this is when real, lasting change can happen. 

The brain needs to visualize facts in order to understand them. 

When recent research from Melcrum examined the brain’s preference for emotionally engaging stories over cold, hard data, it found that when we merely look at facts, only two small areas of the brain are activated. What’s more, when presented with “new” data, your brain tries to select those bits and pieces that confirm or conform to the stories you already know. 

Visualizations, on the other hand, engage multiple brain regions that work together to build “colorful, rich three-dimensional images and emotional responses,” according to Melcrum. When we read stories, we feel as if what the data says is actually happening to us, personally. This is the power of a great story--it grabs us and takes us into new places. Ergo, data needs a great story. 

For stories to work, they need structure 

Humans have been telling stories forever. But the structure of having a beginning, middle and end enables us to identify causal connections in a narrative, not just coincidental correlations.

Therefore, if you want people to understand your data, you need to turn it into a well-structured story with a strong beginning to set the stage, a rich middle to develop the characters, and then a powerful, logical ending that ties it all together.

This is how your audience will be able to see the underlying causes of how things relate to each other and what it all means. The steps that take you through the opening, development and closing of the tale help you decide how to act. 

Data as storytelling has the power to bring about great change 

What if those healthcare individuals who dependent upon data learned how to convert that (possibly dry) data into a compelling story with a clear beginning, middle and end? Might that data then become a powerful vehicle for getting people to embrace your insights based on your data analysis? 

Just think of it: Everyone would leave a meeting knowing exactly what the data means--to them--and why this data is so important for taking the actions that are being recommended. 

Remember, your audience has a human tendency to challenge the facts. Even if you provide people with compelling data, great analytics and excellent charts, they may spend the meeting challenging all of your carefully prepared points. Don’t take it personally--their brains have simply moved into analytic mode and lost the power of the story. 

My advice? Too many facts and you’ve lost them. Stick to the story and there’s no limit to the great things that can happen. 

I’ll be writing more on this topic. Stay tuned.

Andrea Simon, Ph.D., is the principal and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants. She has more than 20 years of experience as a senior executive with financial services and healthcare institutions.

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