Doctors could soon use emoji, those love-them-or-hate-them colourful successors to the humble emoticon, to communicate with patients and ease their diagnosis and recovery – or, if you prefer, 👨⚕️🗣️🖼️🤒🚑🏥🩺🤕.
"It's tempting to dismiss emoji as a millennial fad, but they possess the power of standardisation, universality and familiarity," claimed Shuhan He, MD and senior author of the commentary piece highlighting the potential of the colourful icons, "and in the hands of physicians and other health care providers could represent a new and highly effective way to communicate pictorially with patients.
"The need to listen to patients is at the core of our mission as physicians, and the use of emoji is a great opportunity to take communication to another level. Emoji could be particularly important in treating children with still-developing language skills, people with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate, and the many patients who speak a different language."
He and colleagues identified "roughly 30" emoji characters, of the 3,521 registered in the Unicode standard at the time of investigation, which "could be considered relevant to medicine" - not counting generic images of people and body parts, nor the ever-popular double-entendre of the "eggplant" emoji.
The additions most recently celebrated are the emojis for an anatomical heart and lungs, over which He and co-author Debbie Lai, BA, worked alongside a member of the National Health Service (NHS) to see their inclusion in the standard. Since then, a further 15 medical emojis – including intestines, a leg cast, spine, blood bag, IV bag, weight scale, and crutches – have been proposed to the Unicode Consortium (although not yet added).
Using these, the researchers argue, written discharge instructions could be augmented to make those instructions easier to understand amongst patients with lower health literacy – while using the iconography for point-and-tap communication could break down language barriers and speed diagnoses.
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"The medical community should begin to work toward consensus on what iconography would best serve patients and the profession with the goal of improving the accessibility and quality of health care and health information in the digital age," the report concludes.
"Physician organisation committees tasked with managing the submission of and advocacy for medical emoji would fill a current vacuum, where there is no formal process for proposing and evaluating medical emoji. Such a dedicated effort would enable diverse medical practitioners to participate in the process and influence the evolution of a clinically and demographically representative set of images for widespread use."
Co-author Jennifer 8. Lee, meanwhile, has form in attempting to expand the emoji landscape: she is the founder – and, according to a conflict of interest disclosure, "unpaid volunteer" – of Emojination, a self-described grassroots group which aims to improve representation in the Unicode standard and claims to be directly responsible for the addition of over 100 emojis since its formation, including interracial couple, bubble tea, llama, and toothbrush.
The commentary, Emoji for the Medical Community - Challenges and Opportunities, has been published under open-access terms in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ®