How hospitals present data matters: 5 key thoughts


As health systems across the U.S. have committed to transparent information sharing about the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has become clear: presentation matters.

Public officials as well as community members pay close attention to the daily numbers reported by local hospitals and use that information to make vital decisions about social distancing and public policy. But most individuals don't have a background in data science and can easily misinterpret raw data, or misunderstand unclear messaging about the dashboards, leaving the hospital's marketing executives to provide additional context in the press.

Here are five observations about presenting local COVID-19 data:

1. ICU bed capacity versus potential capacity: it's hard to communicate the nuance. Houston-based Texas Medical Center updated wording in their COVID-19 dashboards to clarify misconceptions about the data. The health system's intensive care unit bed capacity charts indicated that the health system was at 100 percent capacity on June 25 and on pace to exceed "unsustainable surge capacity" within the next three weeks.

Then the health system removed 17 charts from its dashboard, including the ICU capacity charts, before reposting the charts three days later with additional context to show how the health system could convert space into ICUs to add hundreds of beds if necessary.

The chart disappearance led The Washington Post to raise "questions about whether the information had been scrubbed for political reasons" because it came just days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered elective surgeries — a significant source of revenue for hospitals — to be paused again.

2. Choosing the wrong words to explain data charts can create undue anxiety; replacing the charts leads to even more scrutiny. Texas Medical Center removed the label "unsustainable surge capacity" from its ICU charts as the health system approached those levels. On June 24, its charts noted that the average daily growth rate of COVID-19 patients would reach "unsustainable surge capacity" by July 6; on July 8, the health system reported it reached those numbers that were labeled "unsustainable capacity" but the chart's verbiage had been updated to say: "Phase 2 Intensive Care Capacity."

The charts then noted that the health system would have to move into Phase 3 Intensive Care by July 21 and could add 813 more beds if necessary. The wording change came under scrutiny by local media outlets as they investigated whether ICU beds were still available.

3. When health system data doesn't match other publicly reported numbers, spokespeople need to have a clear explanation. The data reported by hospitals and health systems may not always match what outside organizations report. There are many legitimate reasons data doesn't match. For example, health system data on available ICU beds may include all current and potential ICU beds while the public health department's data would rely on appropriately staffed ICU beds.

Another discrepancy could come in reported versus estimated cases. National dashboards including the CDC's COVID-19 dashboards are altered to control for suspected cases in addition to confirmed positive tests while the hospital's dashboard may only include individuals that had confirmed positive tests.

4. Numbers alone can't tell the story. While it's tempting to report the raw data without additional context, the lack of standardized reporting leaves unanswered questions about how the data is gathered and who is counted. UCLA Health developed a coronavirus resource page for patients, employees and the news media to update health system data in one simple graphic and then explain the information on additional pages.

5. The situation at hospitals changes quickly, but transparency is necessary. When hospitals and health systems in Georgia declined to release COVID-19 hospitalization data as cases surged at the end of June, local media sources including the Ledger-Enquirer investigated. The state's health department said reported data was likely underestimated because hospitals reported just COVID-19 positive tests that were conducted at the hospital and not those who tested positive elsewhere and then arrived at the hospital.

St. Francis Medical Center marketing and communications director Becky Young was questioned for the article and reported that hospital capacity was "changing rapidly" as the reason the hospital was unable to report hospitalization data or the number of patients who had recovered from COVID-19.



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