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Reimagining Medical Communications

Reimagining Medical Communications

RISD and Brown students generally follow different paths on College Hill – Brown students spending their days in libraries pouring over books, their RISD counterparts spending their nights in studios making creative responses to assignments. Last spring semester, however, these two groups came together to teach and learn through an experimental course called Communicating Medical Risk.

MacArthur Award-winner David Macaulay BArch 69, the well-known illustrator and author of The Way Things Work and dozens of other bestsellers, co-taught the class with Dr. Ali Zarrabi, a talented graduate of the PLME medical program at Brown University. Under their guidance, both Brown and RISD students (in Illustration, Film/Animation/Video, Graphic Design and Industrial Design) came together to rethink healthcare communications.

During the semester, the students learned about everything from statistics to the importance of hope in medicine through a series of lectures by physicians, design professionals and healthcare experts. Working together they conducted original research – in part by shadowing physicians in clinical settings – and broke into teams to design medical “decision aids” to address problems concerning the communication of risk to patients.

Those decision aids were presented to a community of professionals and experts in the field during the final critique. One group developed an application that allows patients to visually understand the relative importance of their daily activities and how different atrial fibrillation treatments will impact those activities. Another group created an interactive template to guide doctor/patient conversation when explaining complex breast cancer diagnoses. A third team visually explained the risks of PSA screening in an in-clinic hand-out paired with a striking skit. The final team created a website both documenting the trials of real patients during end-of-life care and providing access to information on end-of-life decisions that are too often not part of daily conversation.

The medical community applauded the innovative approaches and achievements of the class, and several of the decision aids are currently being considered by professionals for real-world application. Richard Fishman 63 SC, a professor of visual arts at Brown and the primary instigator behind the unique class, was particularly struck by the success of the experiment.

“The Brown/RISD relationship has brought together people from different worlds to make a better world,” Fishman noted. “This has been an exceptional thing.” Later, Macaulay told students at their final meeting: “You guys have been the teachers here as far as I’m concerned.” Dr. Zarrabi echoed his thought by noting,“We were all students here.”

—Samantha Dempsey 13 IL