Visualizing Medicine: Humanizing Healthcare through Medical Illustration, Web Comics, and Graphic Novels
Art - in all its permutations - creates space for self-expression, emotional release, and a way of processing our thoughts, dreams, frustrations, and grief. In medicine, the visual becomes a method with the potential not only to teach or define but also to exclude or ignore many bodies. Ghanaian-American physician-artist Shirlene Obuobi, MD, and cartoonist-author Alison Bechdel disrupt outdated narratives within healthcare and popular culture that shape individual and social conceptions of healthy bodies. Their representations can humanize the experiences of others, particularly when the clinical gaze can create an artificial divide between patients and healthcare professionals, disenfranchising individuals and communities.
Graphic Artist Alison Bechdel grew up in central Pennsylvania where both of her parents taught at the local high school and her father directed the town’s funeral home. The first cartoons she ever drew appeared in the margins of letters she wrote to friends, and one of her correspondents suggested that she try her hand at drawing a comic strip. This led to her creating Dykes to Watch Out For, which first appeared in 1983 on the pages of a feminist publication called Womanews. The strip was picked up for syndication two years later and began appearing in alternative newspapers around the United States. Bechdel has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2014 and a Tony for Best Musical in 2015 for the musical adaptation of her debut graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which depicts her childhood experience with sexual and gender identity and father’s suicide. At a time when LGBTQ+ people are under attack and queer stories are being censored, Bechdel uses the graphic memoir medium to express her life experiences, as well as foster empathy and advocacy. For future health professionals, her stories offer both keen insights into the human condition and tools for supporting the people under their care.
Physician, author, and cartoonist Shirlene Obuobi MD, is a Ghanaian-American. She is currently completing her cardiology fellowship in Chicago. Her cartoons and web comics discuss her experiences as a Black woman in the medical profession. She started her comic as a means for self-expression during a stressful time in her medical education and her friends encouraged her to broaden her audience by creating a website and Instagram account. Her comics address issues such as burnout and the realities of medical practice. She tells stories that focus on the doctor-patient relationship and how both parties can become dehumanized in the healthcare system. When she is not practicing medicine or creating comics, she is writing books, having recently published her first novel, On Rotation (2022). Obuobi utilizes comics for persuasion, advocacy, and commentary. The medium allows her to reflect on both her daily experiences as a health professional as well as more systemic healthcare issue—such as advocating for better patient care, and the well-being of healthcare providers who work in a system that too often feels dehumanizing. Short comics posted online are a fluid way to communicate complex ideas and experiences to healthcare professionals and laypeople. Through the use of personal anecdotes and humor, and the juxtaposition of different experiences, Obuobi’s work creates space for reflection and discussion.