Interview with Dr. Luks

Hello everyone!

I have some exciting news: this week, I was able to interview Dr. Francois Luks, the Pediatric Chief of Surgery at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and a professor who teaches medical illustration at Brown! I reached out to him after reading the article, “The Importance of Medical Illustration in Patient Communication,” about how Dr. Luks is merging art and medicine in the hospital and how he began a program for students at Brown called “Physician as Illustrator” to teach students the value of art in medicine. So, on Monday, I was so excited to talk with Dr. Luks about the field of medical illustration, its relevance, and how he first became interested in it, and he provided lots of resources to consult for my study.

Here is a transcript of the interview:

Q: How and when did you first become interested in medical illustration?

A: “I always liked to draw, and I drew comic strips in high school. In college and in med school I made a bit of a living out of my comics and cartoons. As I went into residency, I didn’t have the time to do that, but I started to draw medical subjects, and friends and colleagues started asking me to draw for them. Over the decades, I developed a portfolio. I did medical illustration on the side for a while until one of my colleagues asked if I wanted to teach it to medical students at Brown. Now, I get to use my old passions for art and put them to use. And this program grew into a bigger course to educate med students about how to use art to advance their medical practice.” 

Q: What is the most important thing to learn when training to be a medical illustrator?

A: “It’s amazing how much medicine you can find in art history. Many medical programs take med students to museums to learn about and analyze the subjects in paintings. To be a physician you need to be able to observe things without making biased assumptions. This is humanism– trying to be more humane and empathize with other people. And studying art is a great way to be more empathetic. So all of this comes together in my work and my teaching  students to draw better and communicate using art.”

Q: What is the purpose of medical illustration? 

A: “Medical illustration is not at all the same thing as being a good artist. You need to know medicine, science, and anatomy. The reason we need medical illustration to explain things. Not just because it’s a pretty picture– although sometimes they are really pretty. You can explain concepts in words, or you can draw a picture that helps people get the idea right away. Doctors need to be able to communicate with their patients, with their colleagues, and with their students. If you draw better, you can also explain and understand better. Drawing forces you to think critically about showing the body from the best angles. Thinking about making a good medical illustration makes you better analyze what the problem is. Einstein supposedly said ‘ if you can’t explain an idea simply, you don’t understand it. Whether it’s true or not, that’s the idea behind medical illustration.” 

Q: What is the most important thing to consider when creating a medical illustration?

A: “Medical illustrations can break down barriers and make ideas more accessible. I’m calling it the ‘Ikea Principle.’ Think about the instructions for Ikea– the illustrations are simple line drawings. It would have been easier to take photographs, but the company tries to maintain the essence of the subject so the instructions are not distracting. There are no words, only simple illustrations. Why no words? They’re Swedish, so to communicate with as many people as possible and expand their company, they had to make their manual usable for anyone beyond language barriers. The combination of simplified illustrations and minimal words while still clearly communicating information is exactly like medical illustration. Also LEGO instructions, same thing, no words, just pictures. When you look at medical illustrations in history, there are simplified illustrated instructions for surgeons on the battlefield– called “Wound Man” – it’s an instruction manual for the army surgeons and there’s a similar thing for midwives about delivering babies. Back then, very few people could read or write, so how do convey medical information to those who need it?– illustrations.”

Q: How can medical illustration be applied in our lives?

A: “So the history of medical illustration was mostly used to explain human anatomy such as the work of Andreas Vesalius. This is still a big part of medical illustration today– teaching to students. You can also use medical illustrations to show new ideas and explain discoveries to colleagues and others in your field. Explaining medical concepts to patients with pamphlets and posters enables medical professionals to reach people from non-medical backgrounds and even kids. The fourth way of using it is to sell something, which is actually a big part of medical illustration, like advertisements for drugs or even cosmetic products and toothpastes. Another surprising one is the legal aspect to communicate injuries in legal cases through illustrations in order to appeal to the jury. This is almost like ads, to “sell” the case to the lawyers. On the CDC website, there is obviously a lot of information explaining what to do during COVID times, but they also have a whole pamphlet communicating exactly what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse, which was created after shows like The Walking Dead were released. Another perfect example of medical illustration.”

Interview conducted on September 28, 2020 at 10:00 am