You’ve probably seen medical illustrations in textbooks or at the doctor’s office, but have you ever seen one featuring a person of color?
Last month an illustration of a pregnant black woman went viral Twitter and many users have said that they have never seen an image like this. The image, created by future Nigerian medical student and illustrator Chidiebere Ibe, has drawn attention to the efforts of artists of color to bring more diversity to designs, which can impact patient care.
The medical illustrations mainly depict white male bodies, say the black illustrators. Less than 5% of the images in four of the medical textbooks awarded to top medical schools in the United States show dark skin, researchers found in a 2018 study.
Ibe, who will be attending Kiev Medical University in Ukraine next month, got interested in medical illustration in July 2020 and spent a year learning to draw anatomy. From the start, he realized that there was a lack of diversity in the images he was studying.
âDue to the lack of representation, the learning process was very difficult for me,â he told USA TODAY. “During this process, I realized that there was a problem somewhere that needed to be resolved.”
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Ibe, 25, has started advocating for more inclusive medical literature and sharing her work on social media. But he was surprised that his drawing of a pregnant black woman and a fetus received the most attention. The image has been retweeted over 47,000 times and garnered over 332,000 likes.
Although he received negative comments, Ibe said he was inundated with positive responses, including people who said the pictures made them feel valued and inspired their children to study medicine.
âI wasn’t expecting this,â he said. “I just felt amazed.”
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Anatomy drawings have been in use for thousands of years, but medical illustration was not established as a profession in the United States until the late 19th century, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators, which has around 800 members.
AMI launched a diversity committee in 2018 which has been pushing illustrators to include more variation in their work for several years and to raise awareness in schools to increase diversity in an area that few people know about, a said committee chair Ni-ka Ford.
Illustrations, as well as animations, augmented and virtual reality simulations, are used in training materials for healthcare professionals as well as in patient education materials, advertisements for pharmaceutical companies and even in legal frameworks. .
As in the broader medical field, medical illustration is predominantly white. There are less than 2,000 trained medical illustrators in the world, and Ford estimates that less than 8% are people of color.
âIf you don’t have diverse people creating this content, you won’t see as much diversity in the content created,â she said.
Disparities persist even in the literature related to diseases that most commonly affect people of color. Despite the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately sickens and kills people of color, an analysis published by in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2020 found that articles describing rashes associated with the coronavirus showed almost exclusively clinical images of patients with lighter skin.
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Ford, who has been a medical illustrator for four years, said the lack of diversity is a “huge problem” that can perpetuate a cycle of implicit bias that “ultimately affects the health of patients.”
“The healthcare provider may not know how to accurately diagnose a person with darker skin if they have never been exposed to them during their training,” she said. “For patients, if they don’t see themselves in these materials, it can really create a sense of isolation and mistrust of their health care provider.”
Hillary Wilson, a 27-year-old medical illustrator based in Durham, North Carolina, was studying biology and planning to attend medical school when she first learned that medical illustration was a potential career that could combine his love of art and science.
Wilson said many people wonder why she exhibits a wide variety of skin tones in her work, which primarily involves patient education. For her, the illustrations seem incomplete without it.
âIt makes sense to try to accommodate the fact that there are so many different people,â she said. “Why wouldn’t I include these other examples? As a black person, if I had to do something using one arm as a reference, it would probably be my arm.”
Wilson said she hopes the attention Ibe’s illustration has received will help prevent people from viewing white skin as “the default.”
âSometimes I think people feel like there must be a reason why you chose to make someone non-white in an illustration,â she said. “They just exist … people of color, marginalized people don’t need a reason to be there.”
Ibe wants to help further standardize images by producing public health manuals and materials for community health centers around the world. He said he also hoped to create a scholarship fund to “give back to my roots”.
âIt’s not just my project anymore, but the community project,â he said.
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg