JMIR Human Factors
Background: Technological advances in personal informatics allow people to track their own health in a variety of ways, representing a dramatic change in individuals’ control of their own wellness. However, research regarding patient interpretation of traditional medical tests highlights the risks in making complex medical data available to a general audience.
Objective: This study aimed to explore how people interpret medical test results, examined in the context of a mobile blood testing system developed to enable self-care and health management.
Methods: In a preliminary investigation and main study, we presented 27 and 303 adults, respectively, with hypothetical results from several blood tests via one of the several mobile interface designs: a number representing the raw measurement of the tested biomarker, natural language text indicating whether the biomarker’s level was low or high, or a one-dimensional chart illustrating this level along a low-healthy axis. We measured respondents’ correctness in evaluating these results and their confidence in their interpretations. Participants also told us about any follow-up actions they would take based on the result and how they envisioned, generally, using our proposed personal health system.
Results: We find that a majority of participants (242/328, 73.8%) were accurate in their interpretations of their diagnostic results. However, 135 of 328 participants (41.1%) expressed uncertainty and confusion about their ability to correctly interpret these results. We also find that demographics and interface design can impact interpretation accuracy, including false confidence, which we define as a respondent having above average confidence despite interpreting a result inaccurately. Specifically, participants who saw a natural language design were the least likely (421.47 times, P=.02) to exhibit false confidence, and women who saw a graph design were less likely (8.67 times, P=.04) to have false confidence. On the other hand, false confidence was more likely among participants who self-identified as Asian (25.30 times, P=.02), white (13.99 times, P=.01), and Hispanic (6.19 times, P=.04). Finally, with the natural language design, participants who were more educated were, for each one-unit increase in education level, more likely (3.06 times, P=.02) to have false confidence.
Conclusions: Our findings illustrate both promises and challenges of interpreting medical data outside of a clinical setting and suggest instances where personal informatics may be inappropriate. In surfacing these tensions, we outline concrete interface design strategies that are more sensitive to users’ capabilities and conditions.