An iconic language for the Visualization of Concepts in Medicine

Lesson 1 : Icons for patient characteristics and simple disorders


“VCM” is an iconic language for the Visualization of Concepts in Medicine, destined for use by health professionals. VCM is based on icons to represent the main medical concepts. These icons are not intended to replace text but rather to tag the existent medical texts.

The objective of this training software is to present the way in which icons are built in VCM.

VCM can represent several types of concept; each type is identified by a color:

  • the current patient state, in red, including:
    • disorders and symptoms
    • physiological states (pregnancy, breast-feeding) and patient characteristics (age, sex, lifestyle,...),
  • risks of future disorders or symptoms, in orange,
  • patient history and past stats, in brown,
  • treatments, in green,
  • follow-up procedures, in blue.

Each medical concept is represented by an icon that is constructed by combining colors, geometric shapes and pictograms. However, VCM cannot represent very specific or precise concepts, because it aims to be simple! Extremely specific concepts are represented by a more general icon that includes them.

Physiological states and patient characteristics

The color red is used to represent the current patient state. Non-pathological patient characteristics like age class, sex or lifestyle are represented with a red circle, and the characteristic is indicated by a white pictogram inside the circle. Here is the list of the main characteristics (please refer to the VCM dictionary for a complete list):

For the age, VCM distinguishes for age classes.

Patient’s activity
Car-driving and machine use
Accommodation, living conditions
Alcohol consumption
Patient’s entourage
Patient’s family

Simple disorders and symptoms

Current disorders and symptoms are represented by a red square. VCM does not distinguish between disorders and symptoms, and many disorders are represented by their main symptom. The anatomico-functional location of the disorder or the symptom is represented by a white pictogram inside the square. For example:

Cardiac disorder
Pulmonary disorder
Central nervous system disorder
Upper respiratory tract disorder
Stomach disorder
Hepatic disorder
Small intestine disorder
Large intestine disorder
Visual system disorder, eye disorder
Skin disorder
Renal disorder
Urinary bladder disorder
Disorder of female genital system
Complication related to pregnancy, disorder of pregnancy
Endocrine system disorder
Disorder of thyroid gland
Psychological and behavioral disorder
Poor living conditions, exclusion (abnormal or “pathological” living conditions)
Alcoholism (pathological alcohol consumption)
Nicotine addiction

Notice that VCM does not always distinguish between the anatomical location and the associated biological functions. For example, the same pictogram is used to indicate “eye” and “vision”. Moreover, for some disorders, the patient characteristic pictograms are used (e.g. female patient and disorder of female genital system, pregnancy and disorder of pregnancy). The following lessons will show how to add more information to a disorder or a symptom icon, e.g. for representing infectious diseases.


These icons can be used to tag a medical text, as in the following example of text showing the contraindications of a drug. By looking the icons in the margin of the text, you can easily spot the excerpts of the text that are related to child or pulmonary disorders.


This drug is reserved for adults and should in no case be prescribed to child of less than 15 years old.
This drug is contraindicated for patients with second or third degree atrioventricular block without a pacemaker.
This drug is contraindicated for patients with pulmonary infection, or suffering from asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease, in their severe form.

Exercise 1

What is the meaning of the following icons ? Click on the right answer:

(1-a) Lung Wrong answer!

(1-b) Pulmonary disorder Right answer!

(1-c) Asthma Wrong answer!

(1-d) Pulmonary infectious disease Wrong answer!


(2-a) Elderly Right answer!

(2-b) Patient using a walking stick Wrong answer!

(2-c) Motor disorder Wrong answer!

(2-d) Backache and scoliosis Wrong answer!


(3-a) Bone Wrong answer!

(3-b) Dog Wrong answer!

(3-c) Bone fracture Wrong answer!

(3-d) Bone disorder Right answer!


(4-a) Synaptic disorder Wrong answer!

(4-b) Disease of the head of the long bones Wrong answer!

(4-c) Articular disorder Right answer!

(4-d) Articulation Wrong answer!


(5-a) Auditive disorder Wrong answer!

(5-b) Ear disorder Wrong answer!

(5-c) Auditive and/or ear disorder Right answer!

(5-d) Faintness Wrong answer!

Exercise 2

The following text, with VCM in the margin, describes the contraindications of a hypothetical anti-hypertensive drug.

This drug is contraindicated in cases of untreated pheochromocytoma.
This drug is contraindicated for patients suffering from second or third degree atrioventricular block without a pacemaker, cardiac failure not controlled by treatment, or Prinzmetal’s angina.
This drug is contraindicated for asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease, in their severe form.
When taking this drug,breast-feeding is contraindicated, because the drug is significantly excreted in milk.


Resolve the following clinical cases by using the icons in the margin of the text, such that only a minimum amount of text needs to be read:

Case #1: M. X is 57 years old, he has some significant smoking antecedents and suffers from chronic obstructive lung disease at an advanced stage. After several abnormally high blood pressure measurements, you decide to put him on antihypertensive treatment. Can you prescribe him the drug described in the text above?

(6-a) Yes Wrong answer!

(6-b) No Right answer!


Case #2: Ms Y is 65 years old, she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She also suffers from chronic renal failure and hypertension. You prescribed antihypertensive treatment for her, and it has been ineffective. Can you prescribe her the drug described in the text above?

(7-a) Yes Right answer!

(7-b) No Wrong answer!