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Course explores intersection of art, medicine

Illustration course aims to help future physicians explain medical concepts to patients

Contributing Writer
Monday, October 15, 2018

Francois Luks’ course has inspired similar offerings around the country in the small but growing discipline of medical illustration.

As a practicing physician, Francois Luks, professor of surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology at the Alpert Medical School, regularly used drawings to illustrate complicated medical concepts to his patients. After noticing his talents, a medical student approached him and asked him to teach a course on the intersection of drawing and the medical practice. Today, Luks and his co-teacher Emily Slapin, a teacher with the Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Education Program, offer PLME 0400: “Introduction to Medical Illustration,” a course that teaches the history of drawing in the field and focuses on how to draw important medical concepts. The course is offered to medical students as well as undergraduates.

Previous seminars and workshops focused on the intersection of medicine and humanities, but none focused exclusively on medical illustration. The concept of a medical illustration course is a novel one to many;  there are only four accredited medical illustration programs in the United States. When Luks presented the course concept to the Association of Medical Illustrators, an organization that brings together experts in the field, many audience members were inspired by his talk and sought to start their own courses. At the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, for example, medical illustrators had hoped to develop a similar course but hadn’t yet started. Following Luks’ presentation, they plan to initiate a related concept at their institution.

Since its conception, the course has evolved to provide students with greater exposure to the field of medical illustration. Originally, the course was offered as a workshop but was eventually expanded into a preclinical elective for first- and second-year medical students. Hoping to expand the class even further, Luks contacted administrators at RISD and eventually partnered with Slapin, who focuses on the drawing aspects of the course. Together, the two have lengthened the course to a full semester and allowed PLME students and other undergraduates the chance to enroll starting last year.

By offering the course to undergraduates, Luks and Slapin are trying to open up students’ minds to other careers. For medical students, the course is intended to develop their nonverbal communication and analytical skills as prospective physicians. “Big words often don’t work, and drawing helps a lot,” Luks said. Often there are barriers between a physician and a patient in terms of education level, language and other factors, and being able to draw can improve communication. Additionally, developing drawing skills pushes a person to pick out the most important concepts and analyze topics from different angles, Luks said. Luks dubs this way of thinking as the “Ikea model”: concise, simplistic drawings that can be understood by people regardless of background, similar to the way that Ikea instructions are easy to follow, he described.

While Luks and Slapin developed a passion for art early on, they emphasize that confidence in one’s drawing abilities is not important for enrollment. In fact, only approximately “half of students enrolled in the course have had any art education,” Luks said. The students are given individual feedback on their drawings and generally improve their drawing skills by the end of the course.

This fall, the course has had students spend half of class time at RISD studios with models, “so it was more hands-on, which I think rounds the course out a bit,” Slapin said. The hands-on experience helps students grasp the material better, she added.

Students are thankful for the course and have responded to surveys positively. Sophia Sung ’19, who previously took the course, said that she decided to enroll “to learn more about the intersection of art and medicine while getting the opportunity to reconnect with art.” She now wants to continue delving into the field of medical illustration by applying concepts she learned to her future work. Juliana Kim ’20, also a previous student, said the course “made me realize that … my two interests (in art and science) did not necessarily conflict. It was an incredible experience, uniting my scientific and artistic side in such a physical way.”

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