What Health Looks Like: Using Graphic Medicine

The COVID-19 pandemic brought mainstream attention to the health disparities beneath the surface of our wealthy nation. Researchers attending to these issues know that underserved populations such as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds suffer not only from lack of access to healthcare but also access to health information. This paucity of information is actually a two-way street – while these populations receive less health information, their health experiences remain underrepresented in medical research. The health perspectives and experiences of underserved groups must be brought forward and made visible to decrease persistent health inequalities.

An effective tool for addressing this inequality in health information comes from the emergent field of graphic medicine. Graphic medicine refers to health narratives and medical information created and shared in the format of comics, which, when collected, create a sequential art story called a graphic novel. Originally conceived as a way to increase the empathy of medical students, it has expanded to include the communication of health information to various populations as well as a tool for participatory personal expression of health experiences.

In this project, an interdisciplinary team of researchers study the impact of a health literacy program designed on the principles of graphic medicine. This program expands the use of graphic medicine into the public library, a space focused on equal and equitable access to information that has not previously been utilized in this field of study. Library patrons participate in an 8 to 12-week comics program that includes discussions of two graphic novel narratives of health and illness relevant to their community. The discussions are followed by a brief course in comics creation in which community members create their own narratives of health experiences in the graphic format. The goals for participants include increased empathy for others’ experiences with illness, increased knowledge of healthcare systems, increased communication skills using both the verbal and comic format, and increased awareness of their own experiences with health and wellness.

 Drawing of human figure with thought bubbles