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Cartoon of group of people closing in a depiction of a virus cell with "Fight Covid" headline.

More than Comics: Graphic Medicine in the Time of COVID-19

  • Most people probably don't know the term "graphic medicine." But they see it more often than they might think—especially now. Those images on posters or online showing you how to wash your hands properly? Graphic medicine. Comics about coping with social distancing? Graphic medicine. Visual representations of COVID-19’s spread? Graphic medicine.

    Book Cover: Title is My Degenertation: A Journey through Parkinsons

    Linked to a larger field known as narrative medicine, graphic medicine is defined as the place where comics and health meet. But the field goes far beyond comic strips for entertainment; it serves serious purposes in healthcare. Graphic medicine gives patients and caregivers alike a way to tell their stories with more than just words, providing potential catharsis for the creator and information and emotional connection for the consumer.

    Alice Jaggers, artist and curator of graphicmedicine.org, says that communicating with a narrative is particularly effective for the healthcare community"Telling a story has such a unique impact,” she says. “For humans, our brain actually will be more likely to absorb information, to remember it and be able to apply it and understand it, if it's attached to a story.”

    That’s one of the reasons graphic medicine is having a moment. As health organizations around the world strive to inform the public about coronavirus and best practices for mitigation, they need an instructive medium that is easy to digest, emotionally resonant, and memorable.

    A talking snack box.

    A. David Lewis, Ph.D., Instructor of Healthcare Business and MHS Program Coordinator at MCPHS, says that the world is starting to see what he’s long known: graphic medicine is an incredibly effective tool for both informing and comforting. "We're the tool that's being lifted, that's being leveraged most at the moment," he says of graphic medicine. It’s the “quickest, most communicative, cheapest...most effective form to get out word quickly, efficiently." Plus, Lewis points out, “it works for both high-literacy and low-literacy levels.”

    The informative uses of graphic medicine are plenty, as organizations from the CDC to the Washington Post are using it to instruct the public on proper handwashing, social distancing, and virus tracking. But it’s also being used to communicate emotions and provide support to people during the pandemic, often with humor and relatability.

    Graphic of Love in the Time of Coronavirus.

    The versatility and effectiveness of graphic medicine as a response to COVID-19 became the focus of this year’s New England Graphic Medicine Virtual Summit, hosted by Lewis with support from the MCPHS Center for Health Humanities, the University library, the School of Healthcare Business, and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine New England Region. “It’s just this microcosm of graphic medicine as a whole,” says Jaggers, so it was a fitting focus of discussion. Adds Lewis, “As far as I know, our conference...is really the first stab anywhere at looking at how this medium interacts with this specific illness.” 

    It makes sense for an MCPHS professor to have taken a leading role in the virtual meetup: the University library’s collection of graphic medicine, along with that of Harvard Medical School, have made a small strip of Longwood Avenue one of the field’s epicenters. Another thing that makes sense? The notetaker for the Graphic Medicine Virtual Summit didn’t just record minutes. She took graphic notes.

    Graphic Credits (top to bottom): Medicina Gráfica; Peter Dunlap-ShohlB. Erin Cole, Little Brain Comics; Grace Farris, MD