Medical illustrations can be found anywhere from textbooks to patient education material. These images provide an easy way for medical experts and laypersons alike to recognize and understand things like symptoms, biological processes, anatomy, and more. Still, important as they are, they rarely make waves, especially outside the medical community.
But one medical illustration recently caught the eye of Twitter users. Created and posted by Nigerian medical student and illustrator Chidiebere Ibe, the image depicts a fetus in a pregnant woman’s belly. What’s unusual here is that the fetus and mother are Black.
USA Today reports that despite the diversity of patients around the world, medical illustrations overwhelmingly depict white subjects - especially white males who, according to a 2018 study, featured in nearly 95% of four major textbooks used in top medical schools. Artists like Ibe want to change this, and the public’s enthusiasm for more diverse images is undeniable. Ibe’s tweet has so far garnered over 300,000 likes and tens of thousands of retweets.
One Twitter user’s retweet includes the comment “I’ve literally never seen a black foetus illustrated, ever. This is amazing”.
Diversity in medical illustration is important for several reasons, some of which may not be immediately apparent to the layperson.
For one thing, seeing an image of a person who looks like them can make patients feel validated and recognized. It may make them feel safer before a medical procedure or visit to their physician.
Images that make viewers feel recognized aren’t just beneficial for patients. They might even inspire children in underrepresented minorities to pursue a career in medicine. This includes the field of medical illustration, where only 8% of artists come from a minority background.
The lack of diversity among medical illustrators has an impact on medical educational materials. As Ni-ka Ford, of the Association of Medical Illustrators puts it: "If you don't have diverse people creating this content you’re not going to see as much diversity within the content being created."
The psychological benefits of diversity in medical illustration are immeasurable - in many ways, they could save lives. But there’s yet another reason why diversity in medical illustration is vital.
As we covered in a previous article, rashes and other skin conditions don’t look the same on white and darker skin. Due to a lack of diverse imagery, some doctors have trouble recognizing even common skin conditions like eczema on Black skin.
This led Dr. Malone Mukwende and his associates at the University of London to create the Mind the Gap Handbook, a guide that contains photographs and illustrations of rashes and other conditions on different types of skin. The book has already become an invaluable resource for medical professionals around the world.
In the age of COVID-19, understanding how rashes look on different kinds of skin is more important than ever. While high percentages of people of color in the US have been affected by COVID-19, a 2020 study found that a vast majority of articles describing rashes associated with the disease only include illustrations of these rashes on light skin.
The issue, medical illustrator Hillary Wilson says, is that white subjects seem to be the default. This has inspired her to depict subjects of different races in her illustrations. Like Ibe and many others in the medical illustration and medical community in general, she hopes that one day, being able to see subjects of all races represented equally in medical illustration will be the norm.
Ibe’s next goal is to create illustrated material for community health centers around the globe. If you’d like to help, healthcare providers can follow Ibe on social media to learn when material like this will be available. If you’re a patient, you can ask your healthcare provider to obtain copies for their office.
Representation is important for so many reasons. Who knows what impact more diverse imagery might have on doctors, patients -- and even children, who may decide to study medicine because they feel welcome and represented.