A young woman in a black suit and heels, with a leather portfolio hanging squarely at her side, stares at the wall across from the admissions office. She’s an applicant for medical school, on campus to interview with physicians, eat with first-year medical students, and tour the hospital with a docent in a pale-blue vest. At the moment, though, she’s contemplating a comic that hangs before her, a caricature of a doctor in a white coat. The doctor, who has devil horns and shark teeth, screams at a bewildered medical trainee then bites off her head.
Dozens of prospective students like this young woman show up in this hallway every week. It’s the most highly trafficked corridor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, because the wall is covered with comics. On the way to the cafeteria, clinicians, staff, and medical students—current, yes, but especially aspiring—slow their hurried pace, intrigued by the unusual presence of speech balloons and cartoon images.
The wall tells the unofficial story of medical education—the lessons students learn outside of the formal medical curriculum. As the cartoon of the decapitated trainee makes clear, these lessons can be harsh.
The comics are created by fourth-year medical students in a course called “Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives,” an elective taught each spring by one of this article’s authors, Michael J. Green. In this course, students discuss medically themed, book-length “graphic narratives” and document their own stories from medical school in the form of short comics. Using comics is an increasingly popular tool in medical education. Known in academic circles as “graphic medicine,” the approach is part of the field of medical humanities, which emerged in the late 1960s to safeguard medicine’s personal touch. Medicine’s transition to scientific diagnostics and specialized treatments had jeopardized doctors’ intimate bonds with patients, so doctors needed to reinvent ways of connecting with people, medical humanists argued—a throwback to the mid-19th century, when doctors functioned mostly as missionaries to the bedside.
Today, American universities have four times as many undergraduate programs in medical humanities—known also as health humanities—as they did in 2000; many medical schools also incorporate some form of medical humanities into their official curriculum. Focusing on the doctor-patient relationship, courses explore topics like suffering and resilience, empathy, disability, and death and dying; the mediums include visual arts, literature, film, and “pathographies”—stories of illness written by patients or caregivers. Comics, a newcomer to the field, are an especially appealing way for people to tell their stories of illness. Recent scholarship has shown how reading these graphic pathographies can be helpful to patients as they navigate illness and the medical system, and also to medical students and practitioners as they seek to understand the impact of illness on patients beyond the walls of the hospital.