Virtual Visualization for Empathy

A person in love “has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her. But let a sufferer try to describe pain to a doctor, and language at once runs dry.”

– Virginia Woolf

No test can measure pain. It does not appear on a CT, MRI, or PET scan. Yet, physicians must obtain a clear history and understanding of their patients’ pain to provide quality care, even when words are inadequate. Despite the importance of treatment compliance and chronic disease self-management, patients often feel unheard or unbelieved when sharing their symptoms, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Using an iPad app created by Virgil Wong and Katie McCurdy through their company Medical Avatar LLC, patients track and communicate their symptoms over time. Wong meets with participants on a regular basis, observes their use of the app, and makes drawings of them. Patients recorded data on the daily occurrence of each symptom, its severity, and how the visuals may have influenced conversations with their doctors.

Portraits are exhibited in clinical spaces to foster further conversations. A woman with Fibromyalgia reported that her portrait helped her realize that meditation and exercise, while painful at times, helped to relieve her symptoms, let her sleep better, and improve her mood. A girl with Bell’s Palsy stated, “My face would freeze up, but by the time I got to see a doctor, it would get better. Tracking my symptoms helped me show him that I wasn’t making everything up.” Two cases in a recent series revealed misdiagnoses, which the doctors attributed to “not having all the facts on-hand – until we saw the visual symptom tracking.”

This work was featured in The Roanoke Times: Blacksburg native seeks to understand pain, healing through art

The Roanoke Times

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