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Graphic Medicine: The new educational medium for health care professionals

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Ed Hille
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Thursday May 18 2016 Stacey Burling writes about Dr. Michael Green Green who has taught and written about graphic medicine and done it himself. He teaches a class on graphic medicine for medical students, whose work is expanded to poster size and displayed in hallways. He also is one of the leaders of Penn State's Graphic Medicine publishing series. Here, Dr. Michael Green with some of the cartoons made by his students. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Health care professionals seek to educate their students on medical practices and help them understand and relate to patients to provide better treatment. A relatively new development in this area is Graphic Medicine.

Graphic Medicine serves as the connecting point between comic illustrations and the discourses of medicine. Its topics range from materials for doctors, and health care professionals, patient experiences, climate change and much more.

Dr. Michael Greene is a physician, bioethicist and professor of humanities and medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine and is also a pioneer in Graphic Medicine and describes how the foundation of what has now become known as graphic medicine first established itself.

Comics became prominent in the 1930s, with medically themed comics arriving in the U.S. during World War II to understand and prevent contracting diseases like malaria and other harmful illnesses. The concept of illness memoirs, the genre and tone that most modern graphic medicine works adapt, became prominent within the last 20 years.

Using these works in an academic capacity is also a relatively new practice when describing the way that Graphic Medicine is used to educate others.

"Sometimes, the goal [for students] is focused on the understanding of patients' experience with illness, and it's not necessarily giving them knowledge or changing their behavior. It's just saying, 'Hey, I had this experience, and I want to share what that was like,' and that's very useful," Green says.

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Image courtesy of Dr. Michael Green
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"Missed It" is a comic written by Dr. Micheal Green and illustrated by Ray Rieck published in Annals of Internal Medicine. The comic was the first comic to be featured in a mainstream medical journal.

Medical students will typically engage in Graphic Medicine-centered instruction during their fourth year of study. Normally at that point in their studies, medical students have learned many of the nuances of practicing medicine and treating ailments but have yet to interact with patients regularly. The comics allow the students to engage in the patients' experiences of illness in an engaging and impactful way.

The Graphic Medicine method is unorthodox to traditional medical education. Green says, "It's radical. It's different than what we typically do in medical school, which is focused on the clinical aspects and physiology and pathophysiology. But getting inside the head of a patient and saying you know what's it like to have this disorder is important." Green says that medical trainees and practitioners respond so well to comics because medical professionals thrive on storytelling.

Green will be this year’s speaker for the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the Medical College of Wisconsin annual Medical Humanities lecture on Nov. 22.

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Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Robert Larry joined WUWM in 2022 as a digital producer.
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