According to Shuhan He, an emergency medicine physician who helped propose the anatomical heart and lungs emoji, the medical world needs more emojis. He and others have now made the case for a wider range of health-related emojis, arguing that this would help doctors and patients communicate more effectively.
Emojis depicting medicine and health, such as stethoscopes, hearing aids, bones, and microbes, have recently been added to the Unicode Standard. He and his co-authors hope that Unicode will approve more emoji that can be used in medical contexts, such as emoji for more organs, such as the stomach, liver, and intestines, and equipment, such as an IV bag, CT scan, and pill pack, in a commentary published last week in JAMA. He also wants more medical professionals to push for these emojis and for a standard for emoji use in medical communication to be established.
“We know in medicine that when patients say specific words, that they tend to highly correlate with specific pathology,” says He. People often describe crushing chest pain, for example, as feeling like an elephant is sitting on their chest. “We also consistently always ask people, what is your pain like sharp, stabbing, dull, or fiery? Those are all emoji that can be represented in pictorial form rather than verbal communication.”
elephant emoji, heart emoji
He claims that emoji-like images are already widely used in medical settings. To indicate pain levels, the Wong-Baker pain scale uses a smiley face on one end and a grimacing or crying face on the other. The scale was originally designed for children, but it is now used for patients of all ages in many doctors’ offices and hospitals. Why not use the visual language that is standardized across people’s phones if smiley faces are already a part of medical communication?
Emojis have a variety of applications in medicine, according to him. Emojis could be used by patients who can’t speak or understand English to describe their symptoms. A common, standardized visual language could make it easier for patients who speak English but lack health literacy to understand and follow treatment instructions. With the rise of telehealth, medical professionals now have more opportunities to supplement their communications with visuals.
One of His co-authors, Jennifer 8. Lee is a co-founder of Emojination, a group that advocates for more inclusive and representative emojis. Emojination has assisted with the submission of several emoji proposals, including medical emoji such as the stethoscope, blood drop, X-ray, and adhesive bandage. (A documentary about emoji creation includes the battle for the blood drop emoji, which was originally proposed as a menstruation symbol.)
“The use of emoji in medicine is really interesting, precisely because in many cases we’re dealing with sort of high stakes, and also very strong cultural practices,” says Lee. “So the more we can move into a curated universal visual medium, the better it can be in the long run.”
it’s tricky to get more organs in the mix
Lee is also a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee’s vice-chair. She believes that more major organ emojis would be beneficial, but she believes she is in the minority. Though the brain, anatomical heart, and lungs emojis have all been approved, she says it’s difficult to get other organs into the mix because they’re less recognizable and have less demand.
Medical organizations might have a better chance if they created a list of important potential emojis and pushed for their inclusion. “I believe that if the industry as a whole, the professional organizations, cared, they could make a difference,” Lee says.
We don’t know how much traction His proposal will gain, even though a few other doctors have expressed a desire for a more relevant emoji. Before medical associations throw their support behind any formal efforts, more research on patients’ perceptions of emojis is likely to be required.
Although emojis may not appear to be a high priority in the medical field, He believes that anything that improves communication between doctors and patients is beneficial. Being a doctor, he says, entails “listening, hearing their pain and struggle, and hearing exactly what they’re trying to go through, and then assisting them.” “We can’t be good doctors if we can’t communicate.” As a result, being a good doctor hinges on this.”