What’s It Like to Be an Illustrator for the Mayo Clinic

In the seven weeks since I started my Maharam STEAM Fellowship at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation. I’ve been asked that question by a lot of people. The good news is, I’m finding new answers to it every day. I’m a little more than half way done with my time here and already I’ve […]

In the seven weeks since I started my Maharam STEAM Fellowship at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation. I’ve been asked that question by a lot of people. The good news is, I’m finding new answers to it every day. I’m a little more than half way done with my time here and already I’ve shadowed midwives and doctors, acted as a graphic facilitator for patients, taught med students about the importance of visual communication, and made comics illustrating brand new methods of care. That’s not even mentioning the things I’ve done outside the walls of Mayo where I’ve single-handedly eaten my first batch of fried cheese curds, admired tons of massive farm equipment proudly parading down main street, and been pelted by pounds of overripe tomatoes the at Midwest Tomato Fest. Given the nature of my outside-of-work activities, it’s impressive that my work within the clinic has been the most exciting part of these seven weeks.

I began my fellowship with a more traditional illustration job. Working with the Practice Redesign team, I completed a series of images that were embedded in customized education videos intended to communicate surgical procedures to patients. These videos are part of a larger experiment that aims to rethink the outpatient experience, reduce healthcare costs by 30%, and simultaneously improve patient satisfaction. While the idea of an illustrator doing medical illustration is not surprising, I was surprised by the way my team immediately treated me as a professional illustrator. I wasn’t told what to draw and then sent off to a dark corner to crank it out. Instead, I read through video scripts, decided for myself where and if a visual was needed, defined what that visual should be, and then created it. I’d never felt so valued in a professional setting as an illustrator. (You can see a screenshot from my project here.)

In my third week at CFI, I joined a new team and began working with rural care delivery at the Mayo Family Clinic Kasson alongside CFI’s Community Health Transformation team. There, away from the main clinic’s tall buildings and armed with nothing but a pad of paper and box of markers, I shadowed primary care providers and developed a method of real-time conversation capture. As doctors and patients talked together, I sat with them in the exam room and charted the flow of conversation using a series of images, words, and symbols to record their interaction. These quick conversation maps or “graphic facilitations” allowed the patients to understand how recommendations came about and where decisions came from. You can see an example of one of these recorded conversations here.

More from Metropolis


With that same team, I also worked to develop a series of wordless narrative comics. These comics illustrated real patient stories that exemplified the experimental Care Team approach being developed by the Community Health Transformation team. The Care Team approach pushes each medical provider to operate at their highest level of function, to work together to treat patients as a team, to increase their awareness of the social determinants of health, and through these to develop a holistic view of each patient.  My team used my comics to communicate the new Care Team approach to audiences both in and out of the Mayo Clinic institution. The comics were also used to instill the importance of such new medical values within Mayo first year medical students’ work in conjunction with the Community Health transformation team.

eCopy, Inc.

My next step at Mayo led me to the Center For Individualized Medicine. This center does not yet physically exist, but a talented group of designers and providers is hard at work imagining how such a center dedicated to patient exome sequencing will function. (The “exome” is a smaller, more specific part of the genome, so exome sequencing is just targeting a portion of the whole genome to be sequenced.) The process is incredibly complex, and the team asked me to find a way to visually express the nitty-gritty details of their many new concepts as well as the way that those all come together to form the big picture of the patient experience. After many hours spent trying on the shoes of the doctor, genetic counselor, and bioethicist, finally I understood the process well enough to visualize it. I then created an animation that functions as a metaphor, giving my team the freedom to verbally explain the many details of each concept, while the animation visually presents how each part fits into the larger whole.

Next week, I’ll begin the final and most exciting phase of my time at CFI! Acting as the lone illustrator cutting her path through the untamed grounds of Mayo, I will start my own research/design project here to explore the role of empathy, narrative, and illustration in the clinic. It’s kind of a secret, but I’ll let you know that the entire project revolves around “unpacking” patient stories and finding visual ways to prompt realizations. So stay tuned!

Samantha Dempsey is a Maharam STEAM Fellow spending twelve weeks working at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation.  She is the only illustrator in the world’s first design group embedded within a live clinical setting.  Samantha is a rising senior in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and an avid combiner of art and science.  You can see more of her work here, and you can see the work of the other Fellows here.

Recent Projects