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NAEMSP 2019 Quick Take: Improve quality improvement with data visualization

Data visualization illuminates patterns and connections, allowing providers to tell a story and direct actions to improve care and performance

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“Physicians are suffering from data overload … in stark contrast, you have EMS providers who are in a data desert just starving for information.”

Photo/UNCEmergencyMed Research Twitter

AUSTIN, Texas — Rachel Stemerman, a doctoral student studying machine learning and natural language processing, stole the show during the second day of the NAEMSP Annual Meeting. Her plenary session focused on the ways in which EMS can use data and data visualization to drive improvements at the agency level.

Stemerman started her presentation espousing the benefits of data visualization, which she defined using three rules:

  1. It must be generated by a computer (no infographics)
  2. It must be reusable and sustainable such that it can be semi-automatically updated
  3. It must be data heavy

Good visualizations combine information, story, goals and visuals. If any one of these four factors is missing, the audience may lose interest in the content, she cautioned.

There are two types of visualizations:

  1. Exploratory. The end user can dig into the data for themselves
  2. Explanatory. Which allows the data owner to dictate the story to the end consumer

Each is valuable in their own right, but they serve different purposes based on the data being visualized and the goals of the data owner.

Stemerman went on to demonstrate some of the ways in which Orange County EMS had worked to use data visualization to allow their providers to explore individual level success rates for interventions. This not only allowed for self-initiated quality improvement, but also made it easier for her team to compare providers across the group.

Stemerman ended her talk by challenging the audience, to:

  1. Think about the way we present data
  2. See anything containing information and question what a better way to present it would be
  3. Realize data visualization is a great way to engage the community in what we do, allowing us to be advocates for ourselves

Memorable quotes on data visualization

Here are some memorable quotes from Stemerman.

“Physicians are suffering from data overload … in stark contrast, you have EMS providers who are in a data desert just starving for information.”

“Data visualization illuminates the patterns and connections, additionally it allows us to tell a story and focus on the information that matters to us.”

“Data is meaningless until it has context, and actionable information for the end user.”

“One of the issues for me as a quality improvement officer was that there was one of me, and 100 providers. I could never give them the individual attention they wanted or deserved.”

“Data visualization allows for focused self-initiated learning.”


Photo/Courtesy of Greg Friese

Key takeaways on data visualization

Here are my top takeaways from Stemerman’s presentation on data visualization in EMS:

1. Data vs. information

Data is only as good as the mechanism by which it is translated to actionable information. Agencies can have millions of lines of data on thousands of spreadsheets, but until they are willing to present it in a way that is digestible at all levels of the organization, it’s just numbers on a page. Good data visualization allows providers the chance to connect with the story behind the numbers in a way that makes sense for them.

2. Good data occurs at the provider level

Give providers the chance to dig down to their individual level of performance and compare themselves to others. This allows them to better understand the nuances of their decision, making rather than relying on gestalt. It also creates buy-in for quality improvement efforts, as it allows a degree of transparency not normally articulated in EMS.

3. Microsoft Office isn’t going to help

Stemerman suggested a number of platforms, many free, that agencies could use as they begin their data visualization journey, zero coding required. Tableau is likely the most well known, but the cost often puts it out of contention for more open sources options (if you have a .edu email, a one-year trial is free). Stemerman also recommended Datawrapper, ChartBlocks and Infogram, and each has a free or trial version.

Top Tweets on data visualization at NAEMSP


Learn more about using data in EMS and get involved with these resources from EMS1:

Catherine R. Counts, PHD, MHA, is a health services researcher with Seattle Medic One in the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She received both her PhD and MHA from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Dr. Counts has research interests in domestic healthcare policy, quality, patient safety, organizational theory and culture, and pre-hospital emergency medicine. She is a member of the National Association of EMS Physicians and AcademyHealth. In her free time she trains Bruno, her USAR canine.

Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or her website, or reach out via email at

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