When data alone is not enough

If you still aren’t convinced by the potential of storytelling, then perhaps an anecdote on the dangers of letting data speak for itself may help change your mind. In the mid-19th century, a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), was appointed as an assistant at a Vienna hospital.

The hospital contained two maternity clinics. Medical students were taught at one while the other was exclusively managed by midwifes. In both clinics mothers were regularly dying of an illness called puerperal or childbed fever, which was not uncommon at the time. What was surprising, however, was the difference in mortality rates between the two centres. On average the medical students’ mortality rate was more than two times higher than that of the midwifes’.

When comparing the data, Semmelweis realised that the main difference between the two clinics was in the schedule they maintained. It was common practice for students to execute autopsies in the morning and to spend the afternoon in the maternity ward – without ever washing their hands. Midwives were never in contact with corpses. Concluding that a poison must be getting transferred from dead bodies to mothers through the students’ hands, Semmelweis decided to impose chlorinated lime solution hand-washing in all clinics. The results were impressive as after few months the death rate was lowered to 0 per cent.

Whilst Semmelweis’s conclusion became more widely known after the French scientist Louis Pasteur and his germ theory of diseases was developed, the general opinion at the time was that “doctors are gentlemen and a gentleman’s hands are clean’. Even if the data clearly proved he was right, Semmelweis failed to communicate his findings in an engaging way. He relied heavily on data to prove his point, neglecting to introduce storytelling. As a result his discovery was strongly opposed by the establishment. He was quickly dismissed and banned from finding any similar position in Vienna.

 

Adopting and embracing new practices and procedures is an essential requirement for success in any industry. Now that data is increasing at an exponential rate the need to create and explain insights that are easily understood and acted upon is a trend that has never been more relevant.

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