Healthcare: Subjective VS Objective Data

Written by: Naila Ayala, April 21, 2021

Just about every industry today relies upon pools of data to help determine three main things. Where do we stand today in relation to where we were yesterday, and how can this information guide our progress towards some goal for tomorrow. However, unlike most industries, health care is constantly faced with the classic clash of two data types- objective data and subjective data.

Subjective vs. Objective Data  

When it comes to distinguishing the differences between these two types of data, one provides more factual information while the other provides more of a personal opinion on the matter.

Subjective data refers to data that reflects the point of view of an individual. This type of data can be collected through an interview or through other quantifiable means of assessment. Regardless of how this data is collected, it encompasses personal interpretation, perceptions, feelings, and concerns that an individual may have. This will vary from person-to-person and does not necessarily reflect what is true.

A great example of subject data can be shown through the typical pain scale that everyone has been asked to use at least once: “Rate your level of pain on a scale of 1 (no pain) to 10 (excruciating pain)”. The one thing we can all agree on is that my level 10 will not be the same as your level 10, and it definitely will not be the same as Mike Tysons’ level 10.

Despite this person-to-person variability, it provides some valuable information with regards to individual care; and thus, should not be disregarded.

On the other hand, objective data refers to data that is observable and/or quantifiable through some sort of standardized and reliable evaluation. This type of data is more factual in nature and allows us to make decisions on whether something is present/not present or successful/unsuccessful.

An example of objective data is body temperature. If my body temperature increases to 38 degrees Celsius (or 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher, then I will have a fever. Unfortunately, the exact same thing can be said for you, and yes, Mike Tyson.

Is One More Important Than the Other?  

Though it may seem that objective data may be the gold standard through which health care operates and should be solely used to determine treatment and rehabilitation progress, this is not the case. In fact, the use of both objective and subjective data should be used to complement each other and provide a more holistic view of an individual's care and measure of progression through treatment.

For instance, let us consider an individual who is recovering from a concussion. There are objective measures of examining neurological, cognitive, and motor function that reveal their progression towards recovery. However, it is just as important to monitor subjective measures of pain and symptoms throughout this recovery as it can reveal individual over/under-compensatory behaviours that provide additional information to the performance on objective tests. All of which need to be considered when we are determining the progression of their recovery status.

Though this is only one example of how objective and subjective data are used to complement each other, there are many more examples that impact more and more of the population (i.e., Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, motor vehicle accidents, traumatic brain injuries, etc.).

Moreover, in this new age of individualized medicine, both objective and subjective data are crucial to providing health care practitioners with the necessary information to guide their care decisions that address the individual’s specific needs.