A viral image of a black fetus underscores the need for diversity in medical illustration

The image, created by Nigerian medical student and illustrator Chidiebere Ibe, hit countless people on social media, many of them called that they had never before seen a black fetus or a black pregnant woman. It also drew attention to a larger problem: Lack of variety in medical illustrations.

(While most fetuses are red in color – newborns come out dark pink or red and only gradually develop the skin tone they will have for life – the medical illustration is intended to represent patients unaccustomed to seeing their skin tones in such images .)

Ibe said in an interview with HuffPost UK that he didn’t expect to get such an overwhelming response – his fetus illustration was one of them many such images He originated as a medical illustrator, most of whom depict black skin tones. But it underscored the importance of a mission to which he has long been committed.

“The whole purpose was to continue speaking about what I’m passionate about — public health justice — and also to show the beauty of black people,” he told the publication. “Not only do we need more representations like this — we need more people who are willing to create representations like this.”

CNN reached out to Ibe for comment, but he didn’t elaborate further.

Ni-Ka Ford, chair of the Association of Medical Illustrators’ diversity committee, said the organization is grateful for Ibe’s illustration.

“Besides the importance of depicting black and brown bodies in medical illustration, his illustration also serves to combat another major flaw in the medical system, which is the amazingly disproportionate maternal mortality rate of black women in this country,” she wrote in an email to CNN.

What is medical illustration

Medical illustrations have been used for thousands of years to record and communicate procedures, pathologies, and other facets of medical knowledge ancient Egyptians to Leonardo da Vinci. Science and art are combined to translate complex information into images that can convey concepts to students, practitioners and the public. These images are used not only in textbooks and scientific journals, but also in films, presentations and other media.
According to this, there are fewer than 2,000 trained medical illustrators worldwide Association of Medical Illustrators. With only a handful of accredited medical illustration programs in North America, which tend to be expensive and only admit a few students, the field has historically been dominated by people who are white and male — which in turn means the bodies depicted were usually so too.
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“Historical [medical illustrations] have always shown white, muscular male figures and continue to do so today,” said Ford. “The bias towards one body type in medical illustration marginalizes all others.”

Studies show this lack of diversity. Researchers from the University of Wollologong in Australia found in a Study 2014 that of more than 6,000 images with an identifiable gender in 17 anatomy textbooks published between 2008 and 2013, only 36% of the bodies depicted were female. A large majority were white. About 3% of the images analyzed showed disabled bodies, while only 2% showed elderly people.

Why diversity is important in the industry

Diversity in medical illustration (or lack thereof) is important as these images can impact medical students, practitioners and patients.

“Without fair representation and the continued use of white-only patients depicted in medical textbooks, medical professionals are limited in their ability to accurately diagnose and treat people who do not fit this mold,” said Ford. “Healthcare professionals, then, because of this knowledge gap, can be inclined to rely on racial stereotypes and generalizations about how symptoms present differently in darker skin tones, leading to poorer care.”

A study by the same researchers at Wollologong University Released in 2018 found that gender-specific images from anatomy textbooks increased medical students’ scores on implicit bias tests. Another study published in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – Global Open found in 2019 that white patients were overrepresented in images from plastic surgery journals, which the authors believe could potentially impact care for non-white patients.
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“For decades, peer-reviewed scientific publications have used photographs and images that understate the diverse demographics of patients affected by certain diseases,” the researchers wrote. “This is particularly noticeable in the lack of diversity in medical illustration. These inequalities in medical reporting can have lasting downstream impacts on healthcare accessibility and delivery.”

Ford said those who are not often depicted in medical illustrations “can feel left out and unappreciated in a healthcare setting, leading to distrust and isolation when receiving care.” She also said medical professionals may have less empathy for Feel unrepresented groups – people who are black, brown, women, transgender or non-binary – which can affect the quality of care they receive.

injustices in health care well documentedwith studies showing that black patients are more prone to it experience bias and be misdiagnosed for certain conditions. Research has also shown that a significant proportion of white medical students and residents have misconceptions about biological differences between blacks and whites, which can lead to racial bias in the way their pain is perceived and managed.

Despite the continuing need for medical illustrations to represent the full spectrum of human diversity, the field is beginning to change, medical illustrator Hillary Wilson told CNN.

Wilson, whose illustrations Portraying black people in infographics about eczema, sun damage, alopecia and other conditions said both patients and doctors could benefit from seeing the diversity represented in medical illustrations. And through her work, she seeks to humanize people of color and other marginalized groups by doing just that.

“The reality is there are so many different types of people,” she said. “For me, no resource is complete without at least considering it and doing my best to accommodate the fact that there are so many different types of people.”

While Ibe’s image of the black fetus seemed to mark a departure from the norm, Wilson said she hopes seeing black skin tones in medical illustrations becomes routine in the future.

“At some point, I hope it can just become one of those things that’s expected,” she added. A viral image of a black fetus underscores the need for diversity in medical illustration

Charles Jones

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