Health Workers, Artists Partner to Deliver Messages Via Comics: Tools Can Influence Health Behavior

By Wahowiak, Lindsey | The Nation's Health, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Health Workers, Artists Partner to Deliver Messages Via Comics: Tools Can Influence Health Behavior


Wahowiak, Lindsey, The Nation's Health


PUBLIC HEALTH ADVOCATES are banking on an old form of communication to get health information to patients in new ways. Health providers are using comics to educate patients on everything from asthma and diabetes to sexually transmitted infections.

Public health and comics have long worked together--World War II posters and pamphlets used illustrations to warn soldiers about venereal disease --but in the modern age, health professionals and artists are working to bring new life to the medium on two fronts: comics as educational tools for public health, and first-person narratives sharing the patient experience. Sometimes, those aspects overlap in a single comic.

"Comics is a rather anarchic medical medium," said Ian Williams, MD, MA, a Brighton, United Kingdom-based physician and comics artist and writer who founded Graphic Medicine, a website and annual conference celebrating health and art.

"There's been a huge democratization of health knowledge," he told The Nation's Health. "It's the whole spreading of knowledge among non-experts. That side of it is much more exciting than the traditional side of, 'I'm a doctor; I'm telling you what to do.' I see that as a major function of the arts: It distills personal experience."

Rather than giving patients pages of technical information about their health issues, comics, which can convey information with images and minimal wording, make information both easier to understand and more accessible, especially for people with low literacy levels. That includes people with low socioeconomic status and children--people at high risk for health disparities.

Alex Thomas, MD, a pediatrician and allergist at the University of Wisconsin, and Gary Ashwal, MA, an APHA member and creative strategist for health organizations, are the founders of Booster Shot Comics, a comic company that aims to educate and entertain health audiences. They said that comics have the potential to save lives. They created a comic book, "The Adventures of Iggy and the Inhalers," to help teach children with asthma the differences between their inhalers, the triggers of asthma and what happens during an asthma attack.

The difference between a controller and a bronchodilator, or rescue inhaler, might seem too complex for an 8-year-old to grasp, but Thomas and Ashwal said that is not true. Kids can handle tough ideas: Adults just need to make ideas something kids will care about. For example, a person who asks a child about Pokemon will probably get a long lecture. So Thomas and Ashwal created anthropomorphized inhaler characters that kids can understand.

Broncho, a cowboy bronchodilator, embodies the rescue inhaler: He is fast and can lasso muscle bands to release them during an asthma attack, but he can only work for a short time. Coltron, a robot controller, is very strong and can keep airways open, but needs a long time to do so.

"Comics, I think, are very good at breaking

down complex information, not just for kids but for adults as well," Ashwal told The Nation's Health. "It's fun, relative to other health information that they're getting, but it doesn't need to be dumbed down the way we sometimes see it being dumbed down."

Thomas and Ashwal have seen the results of their comic, which also comes with a short animated video and trading cards. When the Iggy and the Inhalers program was presented to children in June at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, Madison, Asthma Camp, attendees were quizzed about asthma before and after the one-day camp, and their scores improved markedly after reading the comics. Only 18 percent of attendees knew that a controller inhaler was not a rescue medication. After reading the comics, 68 percent got the correct answer.

Thomas and Ashwal will continue to evaluate their program this year. It will be tested in both inpatient and outpatient settings this fall.

Comics are not just kids' stuff, however. …

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