Emojis may be the new way patients and doctors communicate

BOSTON, Mass. — Sending an emoji to your friend can be a quick and funny way to stay in touch. Sending an emoji to your doctor probably isn’t something most patients think about when they’re feeling sick. While sending the vomit emoji to your doctor may seem strange, researchers say these symbols can actually help improve communication between patients and medical staff.

Senior author Shuhan He, MD, from Massachusetts General Hospital believes these clever symbols are able to better communicate specific symptoms, medical concerns, and other important information. The doctor says this could be especially true for young children, the disabled, and those with speech problems or language barriers.

“The need to listen to patients is at the core of our mission as physicians, and the use of emoji is a great opportunity to take communication to another level,” Dr. He says in a media release. “Emoji could be particularly important in treating children with still-developing language skills, people with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate, and the many patients who speak a different language.”

The growing book of medical emojis

Emoji is a word that originated in Japan over a decade ago, meaning picture character. On a daily basis, people worldwide use about five billion emojis on social media, messenger apps, and in texts.

Researchers say that although there are around 3,500 emojis in the Unicode Consortium — a nonprofit organization which maintains text standards across computers — there are only about 45 which have a connection to medicine.

The first ones appeared in 2015, with a syringe and pill. In 2017, Apple added new emojis to represent people with disabilities. Two years later, a stethoscope, bones, teeth, and microbe emojis popped into computers and smartphones everywhere.

Dr. He helped to create anatomical heart and lung emojis which were introduced in 2020. The study author is now working with co-authors Debbie Lai and Jennifer 8. Lee to create even more medical-related emojis which can more accurately represent patient symptoms and other health care issues.

“It’s tempting to dismiss emoji as a millennial fad, but they possess the power of standardization, universality and familiarity, and in the hands of physicians and other health care providers could represent a new and highly effective way to communicate pictorially with patients,” Dr. He explains.

The study authors add that, in a medical emergency, time is particularly critical. Using an emoji as a form of “point-and-tap” communication could help doctors know what’s wrong with a single symbol. The team says physicians themselves could also make use of emojis. For example, doctors can add these characters to help explain hospital discharge instructions, which are often confusing for patients reading them.

Emojis and telehealth changing the world

The study notes that the growth of telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic is providing a golden opportunity for emojis to find a purpose in the health care industry. Dr. He believes communication through emojis can help patients express things like the intensity of pain or even mood changes when words fail them.

“It’s clear that emoji have become part of the global, mainstream conversation, and that medical societies and physician committees and organizations need to take them seriously,” Dr. He concludes. “Which means they should be determining now which emoji would best serve the interests of their patients, building consensus around the medical accuracy of these emoji, then working to get them approved through the global standard-setting body and working through the long adaptation and implementation process.”

The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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