The world is obsessed with superheroes and super villains. Witness the rise of the superhero-megaboss movies and TV shows from DC and Marvel comics for American audiences. Japanese manga comics and pop culture enthusiasts crowd Anime Expo, Kraken Con, and other fan conventions. Even Disney is dedicating whole worlds and lands to Star Wars and its Marvel superhero films.

Such larger-than-life creatures are also vulnerable beings. Hawk, Bantam, and Wolverine are prone to rage. Bane is addicted to venom. Extreme heat affects Pyro, Plastic Man, Venom, and Carnage. Oh, heat affects Ice Man, too.

But what about everyday superheroes? The men and women who must deal with diabetes? Or the child who is prone to asthma attacks?

Enter—this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego—comics and healthcare. Some of the soft-spoken brilliant minds behind these superheroes and villains were, in fact, real-life healthcare professionals!

Comic Con 2016 panel

A panel from Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, Seattle-King County Public Health, and the aptly-named pediatrician-driven Booster Shot Comics (@BoosterShotCmx) discussed why comics can “save lives and prevent disease.”

Presenter Meredith Li-Vollmer, Ph.D MA (@MeredithLV), in Public Health Insider said,

Our panel shared exciting work that demonstrates the value of the comics medium in conveying health information, part of a growing discipline of ‘graphic medicine’,”

This marriage of healthcare and comics even got the attention of talk show host Conan O’Brien, who talked about type 2 diabetes and insulin injection comics by panelist Cathy Leamy (@Metrokitty).@metrokitty tweet on Conan O'Brien at Comic-Con

Dr. Li-Vollmer, a public health communicator who has developed comics since 2008, says there are three key advantages in using comics for healthcare. First, comics tell stories. Comics can help people visualize what to expect and what to do. And, comics expand the reach of healthcare professionals.

Her group, Seattle-King County Public Health, created No Ordinary Flu, a story about influenza. No Ordinary Flu warns the public about the flu pandemic, and the comic has been translated in 22 different languages. Her group also created Survivor Tales on disaster survivors, all while crafting a memorable narrative that persons from all cultures can appreciate. And, for the Chinese community, there’s a comic on how and when to call 9-1-1 for emergencies.@StevenChanMD tweet on Comic-Con

But comics are intricate works of art that need to resonate with the emotions of the reader. Leamy, for instance, portrays the positive yet sensitive side of insulin injections at an ordinary barbecue—that becomes an emotional battleground for two attendees with diabetes—that ends in relieving some of the stigma around insulin injections. Claire Berman, who is part of the NIH-funded Pediatric HIV/AIDS Cohort Study, crafted HIV Disclosure Comics in the form of the “ARV Team”. These comics discuss HIV medications—also known as antiretrovirals, or “ARV”s—and how they fight HIV.

Berman says that caregivers can have a difficult time talking about HIV to a child. Her team has involved community advisors, crafting the ARV Team comic to help people talk about fears and stigma around HIV.

Asides from fighting stigma, what about the villainy of misinformation and ignorance? Enter cartoonist and pediatrician Alex Thomas, MD (@alexthomas2). Dr. Thomas not only treats children and teens, but also spreads the word about asthma and inhalers through his partnership, Booster Shot Comics (@BoosterShotCmx). Why use comics?

I keep seeing children who get confused between their rescue and their maintenance inhalers,” Dr. Thomas said at Comic-con.

Dr. Thomas has drawn comics all his life. So, while in residency, Dr. Thomas decided to educate children everywhere with Iggy and the Inhalers. His work has even been featured on NBC News, CBS News Chicago, and the Toronto Star, and is distributed through Madison Asthma Camp. The comics have even been adapted into Pokémon-style trading cards. Iggy and the Inhalers is being researched for effectiveness at UW.@BoosterShotCmx tweet on #iggytheinhaler

Although there’s a lot of excitement around the latest medications, gadgets, and technologies in healthcare, comics can play a pivotal role in one’s health, too. Want to find out more about comics in medicine and healthcare? Visit Graphic Medicine (@GraphicMedicine), which explores healthcare and comics amongst artists, authors, academics, and health professionals. Peruse the Annals of Internal Medicine, which features graphic art and comics about physician experiences. And, visit Comics & Medicine, an international conference to be held in Seattle in 2017.

Steven Chan, MD, MBA (@StevenChanMD)
Dr. Chan is a Clinical Informatics fellow at UC San Francisco (UCSF)'s Division of Hospital Medicine, serving as editorial boardmember for the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) Mental Health, and develops cutting-edge research in the areas of digital mental health, with applications for cultural psychiatry and underserved minority health. Steve's ideas, thoughts, and research have been featured in JAMA, Healthcare, JMIR (Journal of Medical Internet Research), Wired, PBS, and NPR Ideastream. Steve serves as Vice Chair for the Workgroup on Mental Health & Psychiatric Apps at the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a part of the Committee on Mental Health Information Technology.

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