Visualizing medical data: The da Vinci touch

What would Leonardo da Vinci devote his energy to if he were alive today? I am pretty sure that he would be at a hospital. He would take advantage of data of all types — genetic, vital signs, symptoms — all streaming from patients like notes on sheet music, to seek a better understanding of the human person. And likely he would present this information in a way that appeals to the senses, drawing us to examine the information landscape and revealing the action steps we need to take to improve human health.

da Vinci’s sketch book drawings investigated human physiology to the extent that was possible in his time. da Vincis of our day, with more sophisticated tools, are poised to understand the human body at a new level. I can imagine Leonardo delighting at the level of granularity offered by our technology — the sequencing of the genetic code, for example. He would want to make sense of this information. I imagine that he’d be studying informatics and techniques for graphic visualization of data to support his quest to portray human physiology.

Also, da Vinci wouldn’t just be concerned with gleaning new truth from the data. He would be equally concerned with its beauty. Beauty was crux to his genius. He recognized our innate desire for order and elegance. Were he living in our medical world, he’d know that an attractive, engaging design could motivate reluctant practitioners to get the most out of information technology. Tools may have clinical utility, but if they’re not enjoyable to look at or easy to use, they’ll likely fail in the marketplace. For this reason, hospitals need da Vincis: people who can traverse easily between art, mathematics and science.

This display pulls a patient’s diagnostic history into one view, sounding an alert when the pattern suggests domestic abuse. (Click to enlarge)

We have sensor technology to pick up information with great detail, and methods to identify patterns in this data. But that’s not enough. Right now, for example, ICU and OR dashboards display a full range of vital-sign information – but they also create a lot of noise, and are in danger of overloading physicians with data. Can a da Vinci touch help us develop better visualization systems that use artificial intelligence to synthesize relevant information into a single image, so practitioners could take in a patient’s story at a glance?

A study of domestic abuse detection demonstrates how useful new information visualization approaches can be. Ben Reis, of Children’s informatics program, was able to identify patients at high risk based on visits and diagnoses in their electronic medical record. He demonstrated that use of his algorithm could have predicted abuse four years in advance of the physician’s intuition alone.

Data mapping is another example of information visualization that may be helpful for healthcare institutions and public health officials, giving a broad, geographical overview of infectious disease outbreaks. This tool could allow communities, for example, to anticipate flu pandemics in time to mobilize a response.

Companies like Google, GE and Microsoft are entering into the space of visualizing the body and related healthcare data. Also, niche thought leaders gathering at conferences such as Visweek are making headway. And by the way, da Vinci-like systems don’t need to be visual — one interesting approach uses music to tune doctors into changes in a patient’s status. (Listen here.)

As gene expression data indicate a cancer's worsening, the music becomes more dissonant.

da Vinci could do it, and so can we. We can piece information together in a way that highlights the salient points, drawing physicians in like museum-goers to the Last Supper. Extending da Vinci’s art, our new depiction of the human person would constantly be changing as additional data become available, becoming more and more predictive and reflecting the body’s real-time behavior. It will give us a new way to understand ourselves.