In this article, we explore the world of medical graphics and visual communication – a world where art meets medical science. We start by examining some examples of the use of medical images as a form of artistic expression, before taking a look at how this form has been used in medicine to generate knowledge.
Medical creativity is an ancient phenomenon, where art has been used as a way of expressing, communicating and recording the human experience. When tackling this subject it is important to first understand the difference between medical communication and medical art. Medical communication is the language and visual symbols used in medicine to communicate ideas between health care professionals. In medicine this takes the form of prescription writing, operation reports, schooling reports for students and much more. Medical graphics are the visible representations of this communication such as anatomical drawings, bar charts etc. Medical art is a more general term that encompasses both medical communication and medical graphics; in other words they all have a scientific or educational purpose – they are not there to be appreciated for their own sake. However, some images in medicine do not have a specific medical purpose – they are there to be appreciated for their artistic merit.
- 1 The Use of Medical Images as a Form of Artistic Expression
- 2 The Use of Medical Images as a Form of Artistic Expression is Not Limited to the Medical Field
The Use of Medical Images as a Form of Artistic Expression
Medical images – such as x-rays or MRI scans – are already useful for medical purposes, but it is not possible to tell from looking at them exactly what they are used for. For example, a patient may be given an x-ray to help diagnose a medical condition such as a broken bone, but there is no way of knowing for certain what the purpose of the x-ray was. One answer to this problem is for a doctor to produce an artistic or interpretive image of the x-ray, which visually makes explicit the information contained in the x-ray. Interpretive images are useful because they allow medical visualizations to enter into the public domain – an x-ray or MRI scan is typically seen by only a few people, but any number of medical professionals can view and appreciate an artistic image created from that same x-ray.
Medical images are often used to communicate about the human body, for example this image of a man’s hand depicts the anatomical structure and functions of the hand.
The use of medical images as a form of artistic expression can be seen in many different forms such as photographs, line drawings and even paintings. The use of these images is not exclusively limited to the field of medicine – art historians have used medical images in their research, for example one doctor has created an image using x-rays to represent his own anatomy. It is even possible to create work made up entirely from medical imagery including sculptures, paintings or even music – such as using MRI scans as a musical instrument.
Figure 1: A drawing based on an anatomical line drawing.
Some medical images are used as memento mori, or cadavers for mortuary purposes. For example, this image of a skull is used as an object to represent a cadaver’s wound. The use of medical images in this way can be seen as entirely appropriate and explicit; it can also be a useful way for patients to learn more about the condition they have been diagnosed with by having their own x-ray image made into artwork (this was a common practice in the past).
Figure 2: A sculpture made from MRI scans of the human body.
Figure 3: A painting based on an MRI scan.
The Use of Medical Images as a Form of Artistic Expression is Not Limited to the Medical Field
Artwork created from medical images does not only have a medical purpose – it can also be used in art history.
Anatomical line drawings can be used to represent specific forms, and these in turn can be aesthetically appealing. Some medical illustrations are so artistically appealing that they end up being displayed outside of their original context – such as Michelangelo’s skeletal drawings, which were commissioned by the church but are now displayed in galleries and museums.
The use of medical images in this way has been part of the visual arts for centuries; also with the advent of digital imagery, there has been a rise in the production of art that uses medical imagery – especially 3D and mapping techniques. Artists have also used medical images as material for their work such as sculpture, paintings and photography.
Medicine is not the only area where it is possible to produce artwork using medical imagery; there are many areas outside medicine where it is possible to make work with medical imagery such as archaeology, architecture and art history.
There are numerous examples of images being used in these areas to create great works of medical art; some of these images can be seen as being especially striking visually.
Many different types of images can be used to create medical artwork in non-medical areas such as anatomical line drawings, images of the brain, x-rays and MRI scans. Some medical researchers use the term “medical imagery” not only for medical images but also for any image that they have produced or feature in their research. This is an extension of medical art and can be understood as being similar to the concept that all art has a scientific purpose because it is produced within a scientific framework.