A photo of a woman speaking while standing behind a podium. Behind her is a projection of an illustration of herself.
Shirlene Obuobi, M.D., a physician and cartoonist, spoke about the social lessons that have been a hallmark of her work in comics, which have found large audiences. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Art, medicine and advocacy intersect for physician-cartoonist who shares her perspective in VCU Black History Month address

For patients and broader audiences, Shirlene Obuobi brings creativity and commitment to health care, including how racial bias makes its mark.

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It’s a cliché, Shirlene Obuobi admits, but the Ghanaian-American physician – and self-taught cartoonist – is driven by the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Clichés are clichés for a reason,” she said. “Images themselves come jam-packed with emotional content.” 

Obuobi, M.D., visited Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday to deliver VCU Libraries’ Black History Month Lecture. Titled “Narrative Medicine and Identity,” her address touched on the broad and varied elements of art, health care, technology, discrimination and advocacy – all framed by her unique background and intriguing combination of specialties and skills.

A cardiology fellow at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Obuobi has written about medicine for traditional outlets such as The Washington PostMedscape and WebMD, but she also has written her way into the most read genre: romance novels. Her first book, “On Rotation: A Novel,” was published in 2022, and a second, “Between Friends and Lovers,” is coming out this year. 

“It’s relatable, and I can tie little lessons into the books themselves,” she said. 

Lessons – about racism in health care, her experience in medical school and related topics – have been a hallmark of her work in comics, which have found large audiences. Obuobi is active on social media such as on Instagram and Facebook (and one comic, about a revolutionary cardiology treatment to replace aortic valves without opening a patient’s chest, generated 50,000 likes).

“Social media has the potential for unprecedented reach and impact,” she said, which can address the crucial health care issue of meeting patients where they are. 

That resonance to an audience has been part of her evolution as an artist and physician. When she first began posting comics, Obuobi saw them as a mirror reflecting her personal experiences. But as she kept illustrating, she realized her comics were actually more of a window into the experiences of medical professionals and patients. And as a Black woman, she acknowledged that her identity, and using herself as an avatar in her comics, was inherently political. 

“Just by existing, I have attracted sometimes not so great attention,” Obuobi said, recounting when Ann Coulter tweeted about her saying “America was so boring before we got all this wonderful diversity!”

“I feel like I’m definitely doing the right thing, and sometimes that blowback just confirms that,” Obuobi said. 

A photo of two people sitting in chairs while watching something.
Shirlene Obuobi, M.D., told the audience at her lecture this week that her comics spotlight “issues within health care that might not be discussed very easily or known among the general public.” (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Initially, she was reluctant to consider her comics as a form of advocacy – which she was doing plenty of with Physicians for a National Health Program, handling responsibilities such as canvassing and outreach to politicians. Today she embraces the connection, seeing her art as a means of providing voice and perspective on behalf of others. 

“Now I think of my work more as being a canary in a coal mine. I draw attention to issues within health care that might not be discussed very easily or known among the general public,” Obuobi said.

She noted that comics are often a more approachable way to discuss sensitive issues such as racial bias in health care. And she further engages her audience by portraying her avatar as perpetrating the harm in some of her comics. She does so because she does not see herself as infallible.

For example, in one comic Obuobi is talking to two patients who are passionately advocating for themselves. In the first panel, a white woman is yelling, and Obuobi’s avatar is shown trying to placate her. In the second, a Black man is doing the same thing, but she calls security. 

“This is something that I witnessed in the hospital all of the time, and by drawing myself in there, I make it so the people who maybe don’t occupy my identity don’t feel attacked – because I’m not saying that I could not be guilty of this as well,” Obuobi said.

Another technique is using recurring vague characters to represent perpetrators. One is a suggestively masculine purple man who can be dressed up to represent different people and ideas. Another is Coverage Cobra, who represents issues that patients face with medical insurance. 

“By using these characters, I avoid pointing fingers at people so they don’t get as defensive, and they can focus a little bit more closely on my message,” Obuobi said. 

She also will use brightly colored, round-faced characters to make some topics more approachable, while for more serious issues, she shifts her style to monochrome detailed illustrations. She used this style in “Mirrors,” a set of panels addressing the troubling history of Black admissions to medical school. 

Looking ahead, Obuobi wants to work across more mediums and eventually publish a physical book copy of her comics. 

“I just keep going where the world takes me,” she said. “I don’t really have a clear goal in mind because I’m not really doing it for the achievement  – I am mostly doing it for self-expression and for advocacy purposes.”

A photo of a crowd of people sitting in chairs and watching something.
Shirlene Obuobi, M.D., told attendees at the VCU Libraries' Black History Month Lecture that she believes her comics serve as a window into the experiences of medical professionals and patients. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)