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Comics Make Medicine Less Scary for Young Patients

  • June Soh

A growing number of comics and graphic novels are finding their way into medical exam rooms. Experts say that especially for young patients, comics can be a great tool to explain what can be a scary medical process in an easy and entertaining manner. Comics also play a role for adults and emergency room doctors. The increasing and varied use of graphic arts was the focus of a recent Comics and Medicine conference at Johns Hopkins Medical Campus in Maryland.

Medications are the heroes and allergens become villains in the Iggy and The Inhalers series. Alex Thomas, a pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin, uses this video and other comics he created for his asthma patients with his partner Gary Ashwal, a health communications specialist.

“What we are trying to do is to insert scientific information into those metaphors so that kids are excited to be learning about super heroes and learning about super villains, and the strength and the weakness without kind of realizing they are actually leaning about asthma pathology, asthma triggers and the correct use of medications, and the mechanisms of action," said Thomas.

There are no significant statistics yet on the effectiveness of comics as an educational tool, but, Thomas says, his tests show promising results.

“For example, one of the questions was how does a ‘Bronchodilator’ work as a type of asthma medication. Before the comic book, 18 percent kids got it right. After the comic book, 68 percent kids got it right," he said.

The use of comics is not limited to children. Brian Kloss is an emergency medicine physician at SUNY Upstate Medical University in New York. He recently published ‘Toxicology in a Box.’ It contains 150 flashcards he uses to teach medical students to recognize and treat drug overdoses and poisonings.

“I think that all of medicine can actually be boiled down into comic book illustration. By taking complex subject matter and presenting it in comic book format or comic book illustration format makes it much easier to digest and learn much more quickly, effectively," said Kloss.

The Comics and Medicine conference included sessions where doctors learned about using comics in their practices and workshops on how to draw them.

“I use them [comics] a lot in my teaching with medical students as a way of helping explore various themes that I think are really important for doctors understanding the patients experience of illness and how to understand complicated stories," explained Michael Green, a doctor of Internal Medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine.

There are also a growing number of cartoon style memoirs on illness, including the New York Times bestseller, “Marbles". Ellen Forney, who chronicled her struggle with bipolar disorder, was a keynote speaker at the conference.

“I think that comics are medium that is really, really powerful for telling personal stories that there is a lot of specific information with the words but especially in comic about moods, the use of pictures// can create a sense of emotion or tone," said Forney.

Comics are still a small part of the healing arts, but doctors who use them say they play an increasingly important role.

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