Exploring the idea of word clouds in modern medicine

Word cloud

Called either word, text or tag clouds, this visualization is an exciting way to understand any number of concepts or ideas. These word clouds are used in everything from journalism to education and are created to depict either random text or text data culled from a keywords and frequent tags.

Showing the most commonly used or important words in larger font or bright colors is an effective way for people to gain valuable insights into their tendencies and beliefs, not to mentions those shared by family and colleagues.

"Word clouds are a way to visualize any number of concepts or ideas."

More recently, word clouds have made their way into the realm of modern medicine, with some rather exciting results.

Better engagement

At their peak, word clouds have the capability of stirring emotions. Given that tendency, it's no wonder that some hospitals have begun to use word clouds in helping patients cope with illness. Specifically, organizations like St. Joseph's Healthcare in Ontario, Canada make use of word clouds to help terminal patients and their families. These word clouds feature the patient's name, with words that describe their personality filling out the space. It's a way to celebrate the life and achievements of a person while helping their family cope with this emotionally draining situation. Staff at hospitals, like St. Joseph’s, usually generates the clouds using memories and stories shared by patients and their family alike.

There's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that these word clouds actually work. Per one study published in BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care, the clouds helped develop engagement between patients and families. Cloud-making also facilitated a "narrative orientation to medicine," which helps doctors focus more on the human elements of treatment and patient interaction.

Rethinking information sharing

Doug McCune is a coding expert and frequent developer of word clouds. In a blog post, he began experimenting with listing the side effects of prescriptions as word clouds. In his own experience, McCune believes that the way many drugs currently list side effects is jarring to your average consumer. Especially as they don't know what some of these issues are, and the ones they do know may be surrounded by unnecessary text. With a word cloud, these side effects are laid out clearly, and patients can see which issues are most common with what drugs.

And some in the healthcare industry have taken notice, with side effect word clouds emerging more frequently in recent years. It's a quick and easy way to better engage with patients and give them essential information in the quickest way possible.

A cloud of possibilities

Word clouds have many more uses beyond just helping doctors connect with patients or listing side effects. According to Molecular Medicine, clouds can help people - especially those in the sciences - study and better process information. The primary function of a word cloud is to give context about the most important or prevalent ideas, and that's essential for handling and disseminating information, especially in research settings. Meanwhile, physician George Marzloff used word clouds to process his time in medical school. Doing so was a way for him to grasp what he'd learn and where he may have struggled academically and better apply those to his practices.

For those physicians who want to experiment with word clouds, there are several easy online resources, including Wordle and one from visual designer Jason Davies. While there may be some learning curve, namely for those without visual design experience, word clouds have become an exciting new tool for modern medicine.