The Importance of Storytelling: A Medical Comics Course

Written by Olivia Harrison ’21

In November of 2020, a group of people from around the country met virtually and committed to a simple task: doodle daily. Many of us are involved in healthcare: medical students, residents, attending physicians. Some of us are not in the medical world at all, and absolutely none of us are professional artists. However, daily prompts (draw yourself flying! Draw something on your desk. Draw something very small and very large. Draw a diagram of your fridge!) unlocked a glorious range of possibilities and perspectives. 

JW (at left); KL (at right)

Beyond the joy of a daily doodle practice, this project was designed to promote communication and education. As a fourth-year medical student on the brink of doctor-dom, I know how essential it is to forge successful communication strategies with patients and colleagues. Since humanity likes to keep it interesting, everyone prefers different communication methods and educational approaches. One that I’ve found helpful is the art of Art: using sketches or illustrations to explain difficult medical concepts. My friend and mentor Karin Lewicki M.D., J.D., agrees, and together we built a medical comics course. She brought the fire and endless ideas, and I brought the colored pencils and a lifetime of art class experience. Though I advertised this course to medical students, only one other joined me in this month’s journey and the rest of the class, 17 of us in total, was made up of residents, attendings, and friends of Karin’s from across the country. We would be in constant communication for this month: every morning we’d get email prompts, mostly from Karin but occasionally from myself or another participant who was inspired to share. We would also meet at least once a week over Google Hangouts for an hour to discuss concepts in art, such as how to convey emotion in a cartoon face (see Face your Face below). We cultivated a vast Google Drive collection of our doodles, and it was a delight to scroll through the day’s offerings. We all received the same prompts, and yet the results were completely unique. 

Ultimately, we want to use medical comics to convey important ideas to patients. The structure of the course was designed to allow participants to explore their ideas in an open-ended and collaborative way, around the daily prompts and discussions (and occasionally movies, shared over Hangouts). In terms of school credit, I was the only participant who was seeking such formal acknowledgement from the institution. As fourth-year medical students, we are permitted to design elective months around pretty much any relevant topic, as long as we have the correct mentors and paperwork. Since I was receiving credit for this month, I also drew a larger “final” comic focusing on a core tenant of healthcare: WHY IS MY DOCTOR ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS? (A patient’s guide to the differential diagnosis). Over a dozen other people joined me this month not for credit but for fun, and personal growth.

Many of the prompts involved drawing ourselves. 

CM

Drawing oneself is often difficult, but it can lend an element of tender humanity to an otherwise technically difficult discussion. I imagine it’s difficult for patients to see themselves in the statistics and anatomical diagrams that are proffered in many doctor’s offices, but a blob with glasses riding a dragon makes them say “oh that’s me” (in my case). 

This is not about choosing art over medicine. This is about acknowledging that the spheres do not have to be separate. They can be synergistic. What is the point of passing on information to our patients if they are not able to digest it or relate to it? 

The relationship between patient and doctor is a partnership. I don’t want my future patients to drown in information, lost in waves of scientific facts that they cannot tether to their reality. I don’t want them to feel like the medical system churns through them impersonally. 

RF

I want them to feel respected and heard. I want to share with them why our practice is designed the way that it is. 

Being at the doctor’s office is not always fun: It can be annoying, and at worst it can be terrifying. It’s often isolating. However, fostering open communication and building a foundation of nonjudgmental, personalized education can help everyone feel less alone. 

This first evolution of our medical comics course did not produce a library of medical comics, but it created a cozy space where people could explore narratives and draw themselves as relatable blobs. This space persists though the month is over, with prompts three days a week and multiple opportunities to gather and discuss relevant themes. My art, like my practice of medicine, will undergo lifelong evolution. 

 

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