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A viral image of a Black fetus is highlighting the need for diversity in medical illustrations

The image, created by Nigerian medical student and painter Chideber Ibe, has struck a chord with countless people on social media, many of whom She said They had never seen a black fetus or a black pregnant woman photographed before. He also drew attention to a larger issue under investigation: the lack of diversity in medical illustrations.

(While most fetuses are red—newborns come out dark pink or red and only gradually develop the skin color they will have for life—the medical illustration is intended to represent patients who are not used to seeing their own skin tones. Like these pictures .)

Ibe said in an interview with HuffPost UK that he did not expect to receive such an overwhelming response – the depiction of his fetus was one of the many images he created as a medical illustrator, most of them depicting black skin tones. But he emphasized the importance of the mission to which he had long been committed.

“The whole goal was to keep talking about what I’m passionate about – health care equality – and also to show black beauty,” he told the newspaper. “We don’t just need more representation like this – we need more people willing to create representation like this.”

CNN has reached out to Ibe for comment, but he did not elaborate on the topic further.

Ni Ka Ford, chair of the Diversity Committee for the Society of Medical Illustrators, said the organization is grateful for Ebee’s clarification.

“Besides the importance of representing the black and brown body in medical illustration, its illustration also serves to combat another major flaw in the medical system, the staggering disproportionate rate of maternal mortality in black women in this country,” she wrote in one of her articles. Send an email to CNN.

What is medical illustration

Medical illustrations have been used for thousands of years to record and communicate procedures, diseases, and other aspects of medical knowledge, from the ancient Egyptians to Leonardo da Vinci. Science and art are combined to translate complex information into visual images that can communicate 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 the Society of Medical Illustrators, there are less than 2,000 trained medical illustrators in the world. With only a few accredited medical illustration programs in North America, which tend to be expensive and receive few students, the field has historically been dominated by white people and males – which in turn meant that cadavers were usually photographed, too.

“Historically [medical illustrations] “There have always been good white-bodied male characters and they continue to do so today,” Ford said. “The bias towards one body type in the medical illustration marginalizes everyone else.”

Studies have supported this lack of diversity. Researchers at the University of Wollogong in Australia found in a 2014 study that of more than 6,000 gender-specific images across 17 anatomy textbooks published between 2008 and 2013, only 36% of the cadavers depicted were female. The vast majority are white. About 3% of the images analyzed showed disabled bodies, while only 2% showed elderly people.

Why diversity in the field is important

Diversity in the field of medical illustrations (or lack thereof) is important because these images can have implications for medical trainees, practitioners, and patients.

“Without fair representation and permanent use only of the white patients with white bodies described in medical textbooks, medical professionals are limited in their ability to accurately diagnose and treat people who do not fit this mold,” Ford said. “Medical professionals can then rely on racial stereotypes and generalizations because of this knowledge gap about how symptoms appear differently on darker skin tones, resulting in poor care.”

A study conducted by the same University of Wollogong researchers and published in 2018 found that gender-biased images from school anatomy textbooks increased medical students’ scores on implicit bias tests. Another study published in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery – Global Open in 2019 found that white patients were over-represented in plastic surgery journal images, which the authors suggested may influence the care non-white patients receive.
Study finds that black adults report health care bias at higher rates than whites and Latinos

“For decades, peer-reviewed academic publications have used photographs and images that inadequately depict diversity in the demographics of patients with certain diseases,” the researchers wrote. “This is particularly striking in the lack of diversity in medical illustrations. These discrepancies in medical reports can have lasting effects on access to and provision of health care.”

Those who are not often depicted in medical illustrations, Ford said, “can feel neglected and unrecognized in the health care setting, leading to feelings of mistrust and isolation when receiving care.” She also said that medical professionals may feel less empathy for unrepresented groups — black, brown, women, transgender or non-binary people — which may reduce the quality of care they receive.

Healthcare inequality is well documented, with studies showing that black patients are more likely to be biased and misdiagnosed in certain conditions. Research has also shown that a significant proportion of medical students and white residents have misconceptions about biological differences between blacks and whites, which can lead to racial bias in the ways their pain is perceived and treated.

Despite the continuing need for medical illustrations to depict the full range of human diversity, the field is beginning to see changes, medical illustrator Hilary Wilson told CNN.

Wilson, whose illustrations depict black people in charts about eczema, sun damage, alopecia, and other conditions, said patients and practitioners can benefit from seeing diversity represented in medical illustrations. And through her work, she tries to humanize people of color and other marginalized groups by doing just that.

“The truth is there are different types of people,” she said. “For me, a resource is not complete if I don’t at least think about it, and do my best to account for the fact that there are so many different types of people.”

While Ebe’s image of a black fetus appears to be a departure from the norm, Wilson said she hopes seeing black skin tones in medical illustrations will become routine in the future.

“In the end, I hope it becomes just one of the expected things,” she added.

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