A doctor’s dream – fight disease with cartoons

 

WAUWATOSA — The 8-year-old girl asked an unexpected question: “Where’s the anesthesiologist?”

Dr. Diana Lerner remembers that the girl, in the pre-operative area of a day surgery department, actually seemed excited about her unfolding stay at the hospital.

Yes, excited.

“She also really wanted to see the operating room,” Lerner remembered. “It was so fun to hear her quote the cartoon!”

When Lerner, an assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, heard the word “anesthesiologist” from her young patient, she took it as a sign. Her pet project is working.

The pediatric gastroenterologist is teaching her young patients about their medical care and their diseases through the magic sweetness of cartoon videos. She’s feels it works so well, she’s out to prove it through research and she wants to spread the idea to doctors absolutely everywhere.

Dr. Diana Lerner, in her Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin office, displays the storyboards that are created before her videos are produced. All video content has been approved by the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. Photos by Rob Golub.

“Hi, I’m David,” is the opening line of the Upper and Lower Endoscopy video, spoken by a cartoon boy sitting next to his backpack on a couch. “I hear you’re going to have an endoscopy. It sounds intense. But it’s actually not that bad!”

Lerner has produced or co-produced five videos so far, with two more pending final review. During production she’s always wanted her videos to be accurate and explanatory, yet also fun and interesting.

“Honey, is this a normal people word?” she kept asking her husband.

She’s spread sheets of paper out on the floor of her home office to form an outline of her videos (her kids were banned from the home office to keep it all in order for two months). Lerner spent hours and hours reviewing the storyboards that are created before videos are produced.

“Each scene was scrutinized,” she said. “I always tried to find something cute to add. We called it the ‘giggle factor.’”

Thus, white blood cells, which defend the body from harm, look like police officers with blue hats and shields. And when they get confused by disease they look confused.

Need to explain that a colonoscopy will have a device explore inside a child? Make the device “Scopey,” the big-eyed endoscope with a smile. In the video, happy Scopey has a camera flashing on his head as the voice of a child tells us Scopey will “look around, take pictures and pick up little biopsy samples for the doctor.”

Lerner used Medical College of Wisconsin grants to hire CI Design of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, to produce the videos. She got started on the project, in partnership with her mentor, Dr. Bernadette Vitola, about three years ago.

Thus, she took on challenges that had nothing to do with medicine, at least in the traditional sense. “How do you write a script? How do you find an animation company?” she asked rhetorically, interviewing in her Medical College office. “How do you take something very serious and something very important and make a cartoon out of it?”

“We really were sort of animation directors,” she recalled.

Lerner treats kids with inflammatory bowel disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease and other ailments. She has her patients watch a cartoon video on one of those topics or others either at home or in the office, sometimes before she meets with them. As a practical matter, it can save her from having to explain the same thing over and over again. But it’s also so much more than that.

Half of what’s said in the doctor’s office can be forgotten, the other half often recalled incorrectly, Lerner said. The videos seem more easily understood and retained. And they can be watched repeatedly, even shared with family and friends so that patients don’t have to stumble through trying to explain their own conditions.

Also, she wants to get away from patients not doing what they need to do to get healthy because of confusion or misunderstanding.

Dr. Diana Lerner is teaching patients through a series of animation cartoons at CartoonGi.com.

Lerner says the videos allow her appointments to be more productive, with doctor and patient speaking “the same language from the get-go.”

“What I’ve heard a lot of people say is it really decreases anxiety,” she said. Adults seem to like the videos, not just children.

Spreading it to other doctors

Doctors are not taught how to engage patients, or to give patient communication its due, Lerner said. She’s out to change that.

Lerner is so convinced her videos are making a difference, she’s wants to spread their use throughout the medical profession.

She said she’s already got the 13 local doctors of her department on board. She hears from doctors all over the world, after they see the videos at CartoonGi.com. “I have been asked to translate then into French, Arabic, Italian, Hungarian,” she said. So far, one cartoon has been published in Hungarian and all have been published in Spanish.

Lerner dreams of recording multiple languages onto the videos and having several flags on a site where users can pick their language. “I think that’s one of the beauties of cartoons,” she said. “They speak every language.”

It’s her dream that her video idea, which she had in residency, will move beyond pediatric gastroenterology, to other areas of medicine.

Lerner is following the rules and customs of her profession to make it all happen. She’s gotten all the video content approved by North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. And she’s having her videos formally studied, so that she can tell others in the medical profession that they have a measurable positive impact on patients.

In her heart, she knows it’s working, but it will be helpful for obtaining even more support if she can prove her videos’ mission makes sense.

“I really want doctors to do a mind-shift, a paradigm shift in a way,” she said. “We need to make it memorable. We have to get people to engage.”

* * *

Dr. Diana Lerner’s Jewish journey

  • Immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine at age 11.
  • Had to have “Jew” on her passport for a nationality.
  • Exposed to Judaism as religion for the first time in America.
  • Inspired by the Jewish idea of tikkun olam (repair the world):

“As I started learning about Judaism it really resonated for me,” she said. “Being so passionate about this project, part of it is that I can take what I’ve learned through my education, through the concept of tikkun olam and using technology to its fullest. I can touch people not just in my clinic but also Israel and Africa and Australia.

“To me that is what tikkun olam is all about. We take the gifts that we are given and we share them with everyone.”