Creativity Health

Doctor draws on strengths

GP Dr Sam Murton with the Minor Surgery book she wrote and illustrated. Photo: Univ. of Otago, Wellington
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Dr Sam Murton has been drawing for her patients for at least 10 years.

She illustrates their anatomy, symptoms, what’s going on in their bodies, drug impacts, exercises and surgical procedures.

The Wellington GP estimates that she draws for every third patient and has probably sketched thousands of medical drawings.

The whole reason for doing it is that if the person gets it, I’ve got more chance of them doing what I’ve asked them to do.”

Patients now arrive anticipating artwork during their doctor’s visit. One patient gave Sam her first visual diary, a beautifully-covered drawing book. She has filled three of these plus reams of A5 paper.

Another patient picked up her own pencil to respond.

“I had one patient turn up the other day and say, ‘I’ll draw you a picture of what’s going on because I know you like that’.”

Helping patients to see through pictures 

Sam studied art at school until she was 15, then stopped to concentrate on science subjects. She’s been a GP for 20 years and started sketching for patients after explaining to one how blood pressure was like squeezing a garden hose.

The patient said this idea was too difficult to grasp. Sam considered how she could convey ideas to people who struggled with English, lost focus, had limited learning and understanding or whose learning style wasn’t to be lectured.

There are certain things that people really don’t get; you start talking and their eyes glaze over. Drawing is a way for people to understand and grasp these concepts.

“When you are doing a drawing, your patient is watching you and you are both engaged in what becomes a comic version of them.”

Examples of the visual diaries which Dr Sam Murton draws in to assist patient understanding. Photo: Sam Murton

She says her illustrations are often anatomical, talking about blood pressure or the gut. If someone has a pain, she explains what may be happening by sketching from the skin to muscle to organs.

“I draw a lot of backs and nerves and how back pain works.”

She says she is helping patients see through pictures.

Part of the fabric of society

This visual approach isn’t confined to certain types of patients. “It’s across the board really for everyone.”

Anatomical drawing has aided doctors’ own learning for many years; pictures are important to Pasifika people and Māori love story-telling, she says. As her drawings develop in front of patients, it’s like a story, capturing their attention. Children also connect with this medical art.

“Drawing has been part of the fabric of who we are for a very long time.”

Sam says it now feels strange not to have a pen and paper in hand when patients visit her medical practice.

In addition to working half-time there, she works half-time for the University of Otago, Wellington, overseeing trainee interns.

“Then half time drawing pictures!”

The Senior Lecturer is also starting work on a PhD study. This will investigate how many New Zealand health practitioners draw for patients or use other visual aids, aside from pamphlets.

She says many doctors, nurses and physiotherapists utilise art. She’ll interview some plus their patients, including asking how art changes their interaction.

Dr Sam Murton’s graphic illustration for her PhD study, of a doctor talking to a patient and this patient not understanding. Photo: Sam Murton

“I want to find out what actually goes on when you are drawing a picture for people. I’m also interested to find out if it makes a difference to their health outcome.”

Sam’s “other side” is painting watercolours, which have been shown at joint exhibitions at a Waikanae law firm, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and Inverlochy Art School in Wellington.

Beautiful places…Dr Sam Murton’s watercolour of the University of Otago. Photo: University of Otago, Wellington

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For further information:

Dr Murton’s Visualgp YouTube channel which further helps patients understand their care and helps allay fears.

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