08 October 2021

Medical Emoji

Welcome back. About two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the world of emoji (see Emoji). That post gives me a free card to jump right into today’s topic without passing Go or devoting space to emoji basics, like what are they.

Though it was all new to me before seeing a recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), collaborators affiliated with the University of London, Emojination and Unicode Consortium, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have been promoting the use of emoji in the field of medicine.

Emoji Usage
Medicine has used visual analog scales to gauge and communicate the intensity or frequency of symptoms for some time. Since 1983, for example, the Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale has helped children communicate their level pain by showing faces ranging from happy (0, no pain) to crying (10, worst pain imaginable).

The Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale (from wongbakerfaces.org/).

The authors of the commentary point out that these visual analog scales are trademarked and carry licensing fees. They opt for emoji that are open source and nonproprietary, especially if digitally accessible. The availability of a preloaded, curated, digital set of emoji would offer standardization, universality and familiarity, increasing usage. Appropriate emoji could facilitate communication of patient symptoms, concerns and other clinically relevant information; annotate patient instructions; and much more.

Emoji would also be a valuable tool for dealing with language or verbal challenges, whether treating children, non-native speakers or patients affected by disabilities that affect their ability to communicate.

Medical Emoji Status
As described in my earlier post, there are currently 3,521 approved emoji. Of these, the authors count about 30 other than generic body part images (e.g., ear, hand, leg, foot) that could be relevant to medicine. Those 30 are the result of efforts over the past five years.

For example, syringe and pill emoji were introduced in 2015; male and female health workers in 2016; individuals with disabilities (e.g., hearing aid, cane for the blind, mechanical arm and leg) in 2017; stethoscope, drop of blood, bone, tooth and microbe in 2019; and heart and lung in 2020.

Examples of current medical emoji (from jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2783847).

The authors are actively organizing a more comprehensive and cohesive set of emoji. Two of the authors have already proposed 15 new medical emoji for the next release: intestines, leg cast, stomach, spine, liver, kidney, pill pack, blood bag, IV bag, CT scan, weight scale, pill box, ECG, crutches, and white blood cell.

Medical emoji proposed to Unicode Consortium, 2020 (from jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2783847).

Wrap Up
The authors emphasize that emoji complement traditional modes of communication but carry their own constraints, such as communicating digitally, familiarity with human anatomy and simply adjusting to emoji. With medical emoji still in their infancy, however, there is a window of opportunity to shape the way this method of communication is incorporated into medical practice and research.

They recommend that the medical community begin work toward consensus on what iconography would best serve patients and the profession. Take the lead by formalizing a unified perspective on emoji relevant to the field.

Where there is currently no formal process for proposing and evaluating medical emoji, physician organization committees could be tasked with managing emoji submission and advocacy. Such a dedicated effort would enable diverse medical practitioners to participate and influence the evolution of a clinically and demographically representative set of images for widespread use.

What do you think? Would emoji work for you? Thanks for stopping by.

Commentary on medical emoji in JAMA Network: jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2783847
Article on commentary on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/927717

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