Imagine a classroom buzzing with the sounds of pencils scribbling, students chatting about shapes and shading, and instructors offering encouraging feedback on line quality and proportions. Sounds like the perfect space for art majors, right? Last February, though, students at the Perelman School of Medicine discovered that this creative environment could foster the observation, analysis, and artistic skills of future physicians too. Spearheaded by two PSOM students, the new “Drawing for Visual Communication in Medicine” elective aims to help medical students add a basic yet transformative skill to their repertoire.

Students in a classroom

Communication barriers like language differences and low health literacy can make it difficult for providers to convey medical information to patients verbally, but visual aids can enhance understanding and improve the patient experience. “By teaching physicians to draw, it empowers them to empower their patients and bolsters the shared decision-making part of medicine. Drawing is a powerful tool all of us can use, regardless of specialty. It just takes practice,” said Elizabeth (Lizz) Card, an artist and fourth-year student who plans to specialize in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Card co-taught the course with a classmate and medical illustration colleague. They showed third- and fourth-year med students how to translate the lines, shapes, and proportions of the human body into sketches and explain medical information through images and universal symbols. Visual communication isn’t a standard topic covered in medical school, so this collaboration with Julian Lejbman, MD’20, now a first-year Internal Medicine-Pediatrics resident at UCLA, and Eo Trueblood, lead illustrator and co-founder of Stream Studios at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), aimed to address this gap.

Sketch of treatment plan
For a patient with breast cancer, this type of drawing could help them better understand each step of their treatment plan. Here, a student uses sketches and symbols to explain a radiation and infusion schedule.

Card and Trueblood plan to teach the class again this spring — virtually due to the ongoing pandemic. Though she won’t be able to pore over students’ drawings in person this time, Card is confident that, via webcam, her peers will still be able to hone their artistic abilities and appreciate the broad application of visual communication skills in medicine.

Read more on the Penn Medicine News Blog.

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