“I was shocked, and I was quite emotional,” he told In The Know. “That was beyond what I expected. I just had to go with the flow.”
The aspiring neurosurgeon started drawing only a year and a half ago when his mentor suggested it as a creative outlet. Ibe was also saving up for medical school tuition, so he thought it could potentially make some income.
But when he started drawing, Ibe became frustrated with how most of the references available were of white bodies. During our conversation, he said he was working on an illustration for eczema and couldn’t find a single reference to depict how eczema looks on Black skin.
So Ibe’s goal became to fill the gaps and draw exclusively Black bodies. When he started posting the images on Twitter, he thought he’d maybe get some attention for his GoFundMe. Instead, hundreds of thousands of social media users, many from outside of the medical field, shared that they’d never seen a drawing of a Black fetus before.
“I’ve literally never seen a Black [fetus] illustrated, ever,” one person tweeted.
“It’s so true!!!” another Twitter user replied. “I’ve never even realized it until now … But it’s also the fact that Black moms are never represented in anatomy pictures, and that is absolutely crazy.”
A lot of people reached out to thank Ibe, who said he was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I feel very humbled,” he said. “I feel blessed [by] the comments.”
Ibe, who lives in Nigeria, wasn’t surprised that so many people had never seen a Black medical illustration. He’s long been aware of the inequality in the health care system.
“People want to be seen and heard and want to know they are valued and respected,” he explained. “The Black community [can feel] unsafe when going to a white physician.”
Studies have shown that, in the U.S., some areas and populations lack proper access to primary care providers. Jamila Taylor, the director of health care reform and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote in 2019 that “the American health care system is beset with inequalities that have a disproportionate impact on people of color and other marginalized groups.”
“These inequalities contribute to gaps in health insurance coverage, uneven access to services and poorer health outcomes among certain populations,” Taylor continued. “African Americans bear the brunt of these health care challenges.”
Even with proper health care access, Ibe pointed out that the disparity in care for people of color is rooted in even the most basic building blocks of medical school: textbook illustrations.
“There are a lot of cases where a physician is not familiar with how conditions appear on Black people,” Ibe said. “If these drawings are shown early enough, or all the time, we’re able to give that value and respect [to patients].”
In 2014, researcher Rhiannon Parker looked at over 6,000 images from 17 different textbooks and found that only 36% of the images with an identifiable sex were female, and 86% of them were white. Male bodies were depicted as muscular, while women were drawn thin. Less than 3% of the illustrations showed a visibly disabled body, and even less than that depicted elderly patients’ bodies.
Parker also examined how textbook illustrations impacted medical students and found that the majority of illustrations being young, non-disabled white men did influence the students’ implicit biases.
This is an issue because, as Stat News reported in mid-2020, if white skin is the norm in both textbooks and clinical trials, it can lead to doctors often misdiagnosing people of color. The disparity can also be a matter of life or death: In the U.S., Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
“My drawings are all going to be in Black skin,” Ibe said. “Change is already here now, and diversity needs to be out there, giving everyone a voice.”
Ibe also said that having more diverse medical illustrations will have a positive effect on medical students, too.
“Medical students in training will be able to see themselves and relate to what’s in the textbook,” he said. “It will provide health education and enrich the relationship between doctors and patients.”
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