When words aren’t enough, medical students go back to the drawing board

Breaking down complicated medical concepts into understandable pieces can be a challenge — whether a surgeon is trying to describe what will happen during a patient’s procedure or a pediatrician is trying to explain to parents how their child’s medication works. Stress and anxiety, language barriers, and low health literacy can limit comprehension, breed frustration, and make patients and caregivers feel like they’re incapable of making informed decisions. When facing these obstacles, many physicians turn to a different form of communication: drawing.

Two students drawing medical imagery in a PSOM class on medical drawing, with an instructor standing over them, observing.
Students learned how to translate the lines, shapes, and proportions of the human body into sketches and explain medical information relevant to their chosen specialty through images and universal symbols. (Pre-pandemic image: Penn Medicine News)


A picture is worth a thousand words, but a clear medical illustration can be even more valuable. From simple sketches on scrap paper that help patients visualize their anatomy to handouts with symbols that clarify discharge instructions, visual aids can be enormously helpful in bridging communication gaps and opening dialogues. Plus, patients and caregivers can take these aids home and consult them as needed.

However, while drawing is part of many providers’ clinical repertoires, visual communication and medical illustration generally aren’t covered in medical school curricula. Last year, two Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) students decided to change that.

Like PSOM’s culinary medicine and COVID-19 courses, the new “Drawing for Visual Communication in Medicine” course is a hands-on, out-of-the-box elective developed by medical students driven to meet a need they recognized among their peers. Julian Lejbman, now a first-year internal medicine-pediatrics resident at UCLA, and Elizabeth (Lizz) Card, a fourth-year student who plans to specialize in plastic and reconstructive surgery, noticed that though they were honing their skills in culturally competent verbal and non-verbal communication, the curriculum offered little emphasis on how to create and utilize drawings, diagrams, and other graphics, despite ample research showing that visual aids can reinforce messages and improve the patient experience.

“I felt like I had a clinical deficit, and I wanted to develop the skill of using visual communication to talk to patients about procedure plans and diagnostic concepts,” Lejbman says. “Something like congestive heart failure can be a really nebulous concept for many people. Telling somebody, ‘Your heart doesn’t pump well, so you have all this excess fluid’—what does that mean? A patient might nod along as I talk to them, but I’m focused on figuring out how I can use images in a way that’s not overwhelming, but that gives enough accurate information to get their buy-in.”

This story is by MaryKate Wust. Read more at Penn Medicine News.