• Alysa Salzberg

Why healthcare providers should know their emojis

Whether you’re a frequent emoji user or do everything you can to avoid them, it’s hard to deny that these little symbols are more or less ubiquitous.


Most of us think of them as fun, a way to emphasize a point, or a means to type a little less (That “thumbs up” emoji sure is a practical alternative to “OK” or “Yes” or “Sounds good” or “Great job!”, isn’t it?). But it turns out that emojis could also be a powerful tool for healthcare researchers and providers.


For instance, an intriguing paper published shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic suggests using emojis to communicate instructions for prevention techniques like handwashing.


But why use emojis instead of good old-fashioned words, or even another type of imagery?


Research has found that face emojis, which can reflect things like symptoms or emotional reactions to disease outbreaks, are used more in developing countries. These countries may have low literacy rates, making emojis an important way for the population to communicate in text messages and online.


Another advantage of emojis is that they’re so accessible – computers and mobile devices in just about any country and from any brand easily allow users to read and type them.


If healthcare specialists embraced emojis, we could ostensibly find ways to overcome the medical language barrier, at least on a basic level. For example, many researchers are calling for the creation of more emojis like the blowing nose and fever emojis, which allow users to depict symptoms.


And then there is the “cool” factor, which means emojis catch our attention. The paper cites a study in a German hospital where a device was attached to hand sanitizer dispensers to encourage patients and visitors to wash their hands. A number of different illustration styles were considered, but in the end, people followed instructions most often when they saw an emoji-esque frowning face before washing and were “rewarded with” a smiley face after washing.


You may have encountered similar systems in different places – at least in the “before times”. Speaking of which, has the COVID-19 pandemic affected emoji use?


Researcher Anwesha Das shared data gained from extensive monitoring of worldwide emoji use before and during the COVID-19 crisis. Published in December 2020, well into the pandemic, the findings in Das’s article echo findings about COVID-19’s effect on language: There’s been no meteoric rise of COVID-related emoji, and the most popular emoji haven’t changed.


Still, the most frequently used emojis’ presence has diminished. This could indicate that we’re in a more serious time, when emojis might not always seem appropriate. Since several of the most popular emojis tend to portray positive emotions, It might also indicate a decline in mental wellbeing.


These observations reveal another way emojis could be a healthcare tool. Medical and pharma companies could track emoji use to better understand what populations and patients are experiencing and what they need. Companies and individual healthcare workers could even, in turn, use emojis to communicate with social media users – although this would have to be done appropriately and with a real knowledge of those little symbols, of course.


It’s always interesting to look at a typical part of everyday life and see new potential. In the case of emojis, that includes a way to inform and communicate with people around the world.

Whether it’s during a pandemic or when things hopefully get back to normal, sharing health-related knowledge could lead to improving and even saving lives.


Who knew there was so much to a poop symbol or a face laughing so hard it’s crying?



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Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg

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