Medical emoji may broaden health care communication

October 15, 2021

3 minutes read


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Researchers encouraged the normalization and use of medical emojis in the health care sector. This was done with the goal of making it easier for patients to communicate with their doctors in the digital age.

“It’s tempting to dismiss emoji as a millennial fad, the ‘textual equivalent of an adolescent grunt’,”The authors wrote. “But as a preloaded, curated, digital set of images that work across platforms — mobile, tablet, desktop; Windows, Apple iOS or Android — emoji possess the power of standardization, universality, and familiarity to users, with increasing usage in both informal and professional settings.”

Researchers advocated for the normalization and use of medical emoji in the health care community.
Source: Adobe Stock

Interview with Healio Primary Care coauthor ShuhanHe.MD. an ED physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor of medicine at Harvard University, discussed how medical emoji can improve inclusivity in health care and broaden the health care professional’s toolkit when treating patients.

Healio Primary Care: How can physicians use medical emoticons in practice? What are the pros & cons of medical emoji?

He:We are only beginning to understand the implications of a universal, non-trademarked digital visual language. Already, there are some obvious use cases — for instance, in places where we already use emoji-like visualizations such as the Wong-Baker FACES Scale, which is a pain scale that shows a series of faces ranging from a happy face at 0, or “no hurt,”At 10, a crying face is visible, which is “hurts like the worst pain imaginable.”The technology is digital in nature, which opens up a whole new world. For example, you can track real-world evidence, patient-reported outcomes, and other data on digital health technologies on an event-by-event basis. This is not possible with paper-based scales.

Healio Primary Care: You wrote in the paper that you are “actively curating”A cohesive set of medical emoticons. What emojis do you plan to include?

He: There are three types of medical emoji I believe should be curated. It is crucial for the medical establishment that they understand that Unicode is an international standards organization with its own criteria. This includes images that are not too specific.

I believe three common types of medical imagery should be considered that fit the Unicode criteria, while also being useful to the medical establishment.

Type 1: Anatomically Correct Emoji. Includes the liver (with the Gallbladder attached), kidneys and spine.
Type 2: Commonly used diagnostics that are also iconic medical emoji — EKG, CT scan and weight scale.
Type 3: Commonly used treatments that are iconic — blood bag, IV bag, casted limb, pill box (to represent regularly scheduled medications) and pill pack (to represent regimented courses of antibiotics or suboxone).

Our current process is to collaborate with medical societies that are interested in these emojis and have them make formal recommendations for patients and missions.

Healio Primary Care: After finalizingWhat next steps are there after you have obtained a set medical emoji?

He: This is parallel work, not in series. While we are studying multiple aspects of patients’ interactions with existing emoji in multiple settings, we also advocate for more medical emoji. It is important to maximize evidence-based practice for subpopulations, their interpretations, and how it correlates with a specific pathology. For example, we know that the English phrase “English-language phrase” is not a valid one. “crushing substernal chest pain”This is a very specific sign of acute coronary syndrome. We want to be able identify these types of correlates before we can use them in an open-ended manner.

Healio Primary Care: When do you expect medical emoji to be more widely used in the U.S.

He: Because we already use paper-based emoji, I believe it can be very fast to implement. The Wong-Baker Scale can be used as a great example. [The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute] and other institutions have been very interested in implementing patient-reported outcomes to move the United States health care system towards more accountable care type compensation models, so there is a strong incentive if we are able to use it to capture patient’s subjective data.

Healio Primary Care: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

He: Emoji can be viewed as a visual language that is similar to the Chinese language and can convey many different meanings. We are currently trying to understand how this evolving language can be used to communicate. As with all languages, it changes over time, and can have regional variations. The power and universality of emoji means that it can be used in all situations. This raises the question of how uniform the emoji languages are compared with other written languages.

Refer to:

Lai D, et al. JAMA. 2021;doi:10.1001/jama.2021.8409.


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