HOW VISUAL STORYTELLING CREATES BETTER HEALTH CARE
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
Comics creator Sam Hester is part of a growing movement within health care: graphic medicine. Hester shares how illustrating small details of her mother's medical story as she struggled with mysterious symptoms alongside her Parkinson's and dementia led to more empathy, understanding, communication and peace of mind.
"A nurse who I’d never met had seen the picture and known what to do. This was the first of so many pictures I drew to help my mom, and what surprised me was how fast this worked. "
A leader in the emerging field of graphic recording, Sam Hester creates visual stories. Her work draws upon deep listening skills, a unique graphic style, a passion for community-building … and a lot of markers.
My own iluli videos are animated, so I appreciate the power pictures can have to convey information concisely.
Graphic medicine is a growing field. Instagram’s #graphicmedicine tag has over 15k posts, with many users sharing important information via visual aids. These comics are often a way for people to visualise and share their struggles to help others to better understand. It’s a quick, easy and simple way to access and share information on a wide scale, including in medical teaching.
When comics creator Sam Hester’s mum was in hospital, she found herself needing to explain the same concepts over and over to multiple rotating teams and departments. She worried about patient care and not being able to be with her mum the whole time. Drawing comics was her solution. Her small graphics provided a quick and easy way to share her mum’s wants and needs.
Of course, not all of us are professional artists like Hester, so we may not feel comfortable leaving our rudimentary doodles for public consumption. But, Hester makes the strong case that even these are better than nothing. Even an amateur scrawl can help to humanise patients and instruct healthcare providers:
“The point isn’t that it has to look anything like my mom. It could be a circle with two dots for eyes. The point is that there’s a face; there’s a person with a voice. And if you listen to the picture, the voice can be heard because the face can be seen. The message matters more because it comes from someone.”
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
As Hester’s mum’s health got worse, it became harder to explain her symptoms:
“My mom’s doctor didn’t get it. He asked her questions like, ‘Well, what city are you in?’ She knows the answer. He asked, ‘What year is it?’ Well, she knew that answer too. He just said, ‘You’re fine!’ But my mom had been having hallucinations. She sometimes thought she was surrounded by ghostly people. The doctor couldn’t see it, but my mom could ... and now so can you.”
Hester’s comic strips are well done. She is a professional after all. But, most importantly, they tell a story to help us understand, and track, her mum's symptoms. Even the invisible ones...
“A graphic pathography just means a story about illness that’s told in a visual medium. This comic is that kind of a story. You can see the ghostly hallucinations, and you’re invited to feel empathy for the patient’s experience. You can share my mom’s concern that her symptoms have not been recognized. That’s one way that words and pictures can work together to tell a healthcare story.”
Hester’s pictures helped to provide simple but important information when she wasn’t there to do it herself:
“I didn’t want to leave because the night staff were going to arrive and they didn't know my mom... And that’s when it came to me: a picture could help. So I drew one. I wrote ‘Help for Jocelyn. She leans to the left. Please support wheelchair and bed with pillows.’ I drew a circle around the leg that kept getting injured, and I drew my mom lying in bed, and I wrote, ‘This is a comfy sleeping position!’ I taped it up on the wall above her bed, and I left. And suddenly I felt I didn’t need to keep standing at the side of the highway. As if I just planted a big sign at the side of the road that anyone passing by would see, and I could go home.”
It’s not unusual for governments and authorities to use graphics to explain simple guidance. We all remember the COVID-19 posters that were used to instruct us on how to interact, or not, with each other to stay safe during the pandemic. Hester was creating personalised ones, to help her mum.
“A nurse who I’d never met had seen the picture and known what to do. This was the first of so many pictures I drew to help my mom, and what surprised me was how fast this worked. I carried pictures like this around with me everywhere I went to pull out whenever I needed them to save me explaining things again. And I learned that a picture’s worth a thousand words that you just don’t have time to say.”
Hospital staff work hard, they have a lot of patients to see and a lot to do. Graphics highlighting healthcare issues means that the patient’s most important wants and needs can be understood quickly and clearly.
HUMANISING PATIENT CARE
An intake chart is personal, all your details are there. But it can feel dehumanising to see your life and illnesses set out in a series of short comments and facts. We are much more than a medical history after all.
Hester found her mum didn’t just want her to draw instructional pictures, but humanising ones too:
“She said, ‘Please tell them to call me Jocelyn. They don’t know I go by my middle name!’ She said, ‘Please tell them I’m left-handed,’ and she asked me to draw a food tray on which the items had been placed where her hand could reach them. She asked me to draw a picture that said, ‘Please remove lids!’ That's because nerve damage in her hands makes fine motor skills a challenge. She asked me to draw a picture that said, ‘Please fill cups halfway! A full cup is too heavy!’ She asked me to draw a picture that said, ‘Please tell me your name! I can’t read your name tag.’ And she asked me to draw a picture to go on the door of her room, so she would know which room was hers.”
This was not the list Hester was expecting. They were small details, but ones that would make a huge difference to how her mum would interact with her environment. They were humanising, highlighting what was important for her mum’s comfort.
What’s more, a picture can be used to show what a person is working towards, and give a sense of who they are, beyond just another sick patient:
“My mom asked me ‘Now draw one more. Draw me looking healthy. Draw me walking with my walker, and label it: ‘Jocelyn’s Goal.’ She said, ‘The staff here are just going to see a sick old lady in the hospital bed, someone who’s weak and confused. It’s easy to think that’s all I am.’ She said, ‘I want them to understand what we’re working for. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it.’"
There are many reasons someone could be in hospital, but it is never nice to just feel like just one of many patients whose needs are assumed by doctors based on an illness. Yes there are many great healthcare staff out there who go above and beyond, but there are also busy, understaffed wards and challenges such as language barriers to contend with.
Graphic medicine, small infographics or full-on comic strips, are empowering to the people commissioning or using them, no matter what language you speak. They are also more common than you think.
“You may be surprised to discover that the people in your health care community are already familiar with graphic medicine, the growing movement at the intersection of healthcare and comics. They may already know how a picture can be an amazing time-saver or a tool for creating empathy and personal connections. Just imagine if your new doctor opened your chart and saw pictures that sparked curiosity about the person, not just the symptoms.”
Hester’s talk is a great reminder for all of us to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of defining people by their illnesses.
Right, I’m now off to grab a sketch pad so I can brush up on my artistic skills.