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The surprising case for emoji in healthcare

Fast Company

February 4, 2022

Ruth Reader

The surprising case for emoji in healthcare

Some doctors are advocating for more medical emoji. But will clinicians use them—and patients understand them?

Last September, Dr. Shuhan He, a faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Computer Science Lab, contributed an article to the Journal of the American Medical Association drawing attention to the creation of a comprehensive set of medical emoji. “The next step is for the medical community to better leverage these hard-won emoji. But how? And why?” he wrote.

In his piece, the doctor outlined a rash of ideas for how clinicians could use these digital hieroglyphs. The use cases range from helping patients communicate their symptoms or pain levels to making discharge instructions more comprehensible. Plus, he noted, more of medicine is happening online. It makes sense that the healthcare community should embrace the natural language of digital spaces.

Over the past six years, medical emoji have slowly been seeping into the lexicon defined by the Unicode Consortium standards body. That started with a syringe and pill in 2016 and has since expanded to some 30 emoji representing illness, body parts and organs, healthcare workers, medicines, tools, wheelchairs, and canes. Even the rod of Asclepius—the familiar symbol of medicine and healthcare dating to ancient Greece—is an emoji. THERE ARE NOW MORE THAN 45 EMOJI THAT ARE IN SOME WAY RELATED TO HEALTH WITHIN THE 1,853-CHARACTER SYSTEM. There are now more than 45 emoji that are in some way related to health within the 1,853-character system. He, in tandem with technologist Debbie Lai and journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, are trying to get another 15 medical emoji adopted by Unicode, including intestines, leg cast, stomach, spine, liver, kidney, pill box, pill pack, blood bag, IV bag, CT scan, ECG, and white blood cell. So far, they’ve gotten a crutch approved.

Medical emoji are gaining ground outside of Unicode too. In 2021, Daniel Burka, a former design partner for Google Ventures and founder of global health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, launched Health Icons, an open-source set of medical images to be used in new health projects. The goal is to help support the use of emoji in digital health.

It’s not an unprecedented idea. The Wong-Baker Faces pain rating scale