A comparison of graphical and textual presentations of time series data to support medical decision making in the neonatal intensive care unit

J Clin Monit Comput. 2005 Jun;19(3):183-94. doi: 10.1007/s10877-005-0879-3.


Objective: To compare expert-generated textual summaries of physiological data with trend graphs, in terms of their ability to support neonatal Intensive Care Unit (ICU) staff in making decisions when presented with medical scenarios.

Methods: Forty neonatal ICU staff were recruited for the experiment, eight from each of five groups--junior, intermediate and senior nurses, junior and senior doctors. The participants were presented with medical scenarios on a computer screen, and asked to choose from a list of 18 possible actions those they thought were appropriate. Half of the scenarios were presented as trend graphs, while the other half were presented as passages of text. The textual summaries had been generated by two human experts and were intended to describe the physiological state of the patient over a short period of time (around 40 minutes) but not to interpret it.

Results: In terms of the content of responses there was a clear advantage for the Text condition, with participants tending to choose more of the appropriate actions when the information was presented as text rather than as graphs. In terms of the speed of response there was no difference between the Graphs and Text conditions. There was no significant difference between the staff groups in terms of speed or content of responses. In contrast to the objective measures of performance, the majority of participants reported a subjective preference for the Graphs condition.

Conclusions: In this experimental task, participants performed better when presented with a textual summary of the medical scenario than when it was presented as a set of trend graphs. If the necessary algorithms could be developed that would allow computers automatically to generate descriptive summaries of physiological data, this could potentially be a useful feature of decision support tools in the intensive care unit.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computer Graphics*
  • Decision Support Systems, Clinical*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intensive Care Units, Neonatal*
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / methods
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Scotland