Mickey Mouse Goes to Med School

August 10, 2016


Medical students at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons recently received an assignment they likely never imagined – To create an accurate sketch of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. It’s part of an innovative course titled “Comics and Visual Storytelling” and ultimately serves to help medical students better understand and empathize with future patients.

The course is part of a unique narrative medicine curriculum developed by Dr. Rita Charon, an internist at Columbia University Medical Center with aim of training healthcare workers “to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness.” The aim: to help make students aware early on of the narrative challenges they’ll face while interacting with patients throughout their medical careers.

One former student, Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, knows firsthand how effective the approach can be. He initially had planned to follow his cardiologist father’s footsteps into the medical profession, but all the while couldn’t help but foster his love for cartooning. He took one of the program’s original courses during his senior year at the college and finally found a way to combine his two seemingly disparate passions. For a project in the program, which initially focused on reading novels and writing essays, Schwartz illustrated a children’s book that told the story of a little boy whose mother dies and was written to help children deal with death in a family.

Says Charon, “It was the first time any one of the narrative medicine students had done anyting like this and it was profound.”

Today, Schwartz is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and a lecturer in the narrative medicine program, which he has helped to further develop by adding the comic and visual storytelling aspects.

“The class I teach is not actually about comics and drawing per se but about getting students to make use of tools that will serve them well in their medical careers,” Schwarts wrote recently in The New Yorker. “Tools like attention, for example—which is where Mickey Mouse comes in. Prior to this exercise, these students were confident that they could conjure up a clear mental picture of the Mouse. It’s only when they’re asked to reproduce the mental picture on paper that they realized the number of details they never truly committed to memory.”

A prime example of the details commonly missed by medical students – Whether Mickey wears shorts (He does). While a college cartoon sketch may seem a moot point, consider that such attention to and recall of details potentially could make a critical difference in a future patient’s treatment.

Other concepts explored in the program include perspective and empathy.

“What begins as a lesson on vanishing points, horizon lines, and representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional picture plane evolves into an exploration of how our literal point of view informs our emotional position,” Schwartz writes. “Consider an encounter between doctor and patient, at the hospital, by the patient’s bedside. From the patient’s perspective, how might the scene feel while looking up at a doctor standing over the bed versus being eye to eye with a doctor who’s pulled up a chair?”

The narrative medicine curriculum is just one example of the innovative new approaches that medical schools nationwide are developing and implementing to help modernize, personalize and improve the study of medicine. It’s also very much in line with the revolutionary approach that we here at WOLFPACC espouse, rejecting the memorize-and-recall method of studying medicine and instead helping students build a solid understanding of the body’s five main organ systems and how they relate to each other and their associated diseases.

Intrigued? Find out how we can help you get the competitive edge in your medical studies and career. Call 904-209-3140 to speak with a WOLFPACC enrollment specialist today.