Teaching Med Students to Illustrate for Patient Communication

Anna Delamerced


May 17, 2018

The Role of Illustration in Medical Education

Dr. Luks encourages students and providers to embrace the value of illustration in medicine. "It's like being a good conductor," he offers. The conductor knows the next steps and guides the orchestra, improvising if any issue arises. So, too, does using sketches in medicine (especially in the field of surgery) involve knowing the next steps, guiding the health team, and learning how to navigate challenges if they arise. Drawing also establishes understanding. To draw a procedure or an organ, the person needs to understand what they are drawing as best they can. Sketching can help tease out and wrestle their thoughts onto one place, as if thinking out loud on paper.

Illustration also plays a significant role in medical education. A clear and concise visual can teach medical students so much about anatomy. Ian Suk, B.Sc., B.M.C., a lauded medical illustrator, recently came to Brown University to give a guest lecture as part of the "Physician as Illustrator" course. At Johns Hopkins University, he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Neurosurgery and in the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. Combining his passions, he illustrates neurosurgical procedures and clinical anatomy — from tumors of the spine to various brain tumor procedures. He echoed how a good illustration goes a long way in education. Perhaps the most famous medical illustrator is Dr. Frank H. Netter, a physician whose works of art have become integrated in many medical schools' curricula. His portrayals of symptoms using life-like examples of everyday people and situations have often been compared to those of Norman Rockwell.

For those who may be wary of their artistic capabilities, Dr. Luks encourages medical students to see the value of art in medicine, emphasizing how illustration improves communication with patients and health care providers. He wants students to not be intimidated if art isn't their strength. "Anyone can draw," he affirms. People may have different skill sets, but drawing even basic sketches can help us become a better physician and a better communicator with our patients.

Practicing Art and Including Art in Practice

Ollin Venegas, a second-year medical student at Brown, took the preclinical elective last year. He emphasized how learning a basic algorithm of shape, contours, and shading is fundamental to creating an alternative means of communication between patients and providers. "If a picture is worth a thousand words," he adds, "a well-drawn medical illustration for a patient...is worth triple that!"

Jazmin Aceves, a first-year student at Brown in the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), joined the piloted undergraduate course this past fall, which she described as "incredibly engaging and hands-on." From anatomical material to the practice of artistic techniques, the class sessions focused on encouraging and enhancing one's abilities in illustration and communication. Likewise, Sabrina Arezo, a first-year PLME student who also took the course, said her biggest takeaways included learning drawing techniques to demonstrate and explain medical procedures. She hopes to use the techniques she learned in this class "with my own patients in the future."

For medical students who are already rotating in the hospitals, they are applying what they learned in class to their clinical encounters. Third-year medical student Alice Cao, who also served as one of the student leaders for the course, emphasizes how medical illustration focuses on communication in a medically accurate and understandable way. "From sketching a gallbladder to explain a cholecystectomy, to drawing the anatomy of a breast duct to explain metastasis," Alice offers, "I have carried a piece of this class with me everywhere during my third-year clerkships."

Collaborating with RISD has sparked an interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and ideas. Dr. Luks desires the course to keep growing and flourishing. His ultimate goal is to develop a true program in medical illustration leading to an accredited degree. "Currently, there are only four such programs in North America," he remarks. Despite the low number of programs currently, he is hopeful for a cultural shift. Dr. Luks foresees medical illustration playing a larger role in medical education. At the end of the day, we go into medicine to serve patients. And if drawings, sketches, and visuals can help patients better understand their diagnosis, a procedure, or any facet of their medical care, it is worth exploring the crossroads of art and medicine.


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