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This Mass. General doctor helped get two new medical emojis approved

The anatomical heart and lung icons will be showing up on people’s smartphones later this year.

Heart and lung emojis will be coming to people's smartphones later this year.
Heart and lung emojis will be coming to people's smartphones later this year.Anna Zeng/Emojination

For the last year, Dr. Shuhan He has waited with bated breath to find out if two new health-specific emojis — the tiny, universal characters people use every day to express feelings — would be added to smartphones all over the world.

On Jan. 29, He got the heartwarming news he’d been hoping for.

He, an emergency medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, learned last week that an anatomical heart and lung will be included in the newest batch of emojis set to hit people’s smartphone keyboards later this year, after a proposal he helped co-author was approved by the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit group ultimately responsible for deciding which new pictorial symbols make the cut annually.

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“This was just really fun for me,” said He in a telephone interview with the Globe. “It’s just really exciting.”

Unicode revealed recently that 117 new emojis — including the realistic-looking heart and lung — were given the green-light for release in 2020. Bubbletea, a teapot, an army helmet, as well as new gender-inclusive emoji are among those joining the emoji landscape, according to the organization’s announcement.

The effort to get the heart and lung included on the list was spearheaded by Melissa Thermidor, social media lead with NHS Blood and Transplant in the U.K.; Christian Kamkoff, an MFA candidate at Columbia University; and Jennifer 8. Lee, co-founder of Emojination and one of the vice chairs of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee.

Dr. He co-wrote the bid after getting connected with Lee last year at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, he said. Shortly after, he was introduced to Kamkoff and Thermidor, and assisted them with making the push for the detailed pictograms.

“I just had taken a kind of healthcare role in that" process, said He. “We came together, and we got the anatomical heart and anatomical lung released as emojis.”

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Anyone can submit a proposal for an emoji character, according to the consortium’s website. But there are specific guidelines that must be met — and not every idea is a shoe-in.

He, who often sees patients for shortness of breath or heart complications and chest pain, said adding a heart and lung — images that aren’t too cartoony — to the world of available emojis could help both doctors and patients.

“The anatomical heart and lungs are really widely applicable, not only just in medicine but outside of it as well. People could use it for all these various reasons,” he said, including promoting general awareness about heart and lung health.

In a follow-up message to the Globe, he added, “Emojis are literally just ways for patients to tell us how they feel,” similar to how the Wong Baker scale — the illustrated set of faces and numbers that patients can point to to express pain levels — has been used widely.

“Emojis are just a way to communicate in a way that is less confusing for everyone,” He said.

The group argued in their pitches, which were submitted in March last year, that people have been requesting both a realistic heart and lung emoji on social media, with many wondering why they haven’t been available from the start.

“The current absence... is a notable gap in the body part category,” the group wrote. “And if it were added, frequent and widespread usage would be expected.”

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They said the emojis could be paired with several other icons to convey emotions. For example, a lung and a person running or biking to express aerobic exercise, or the heart and fire emoji to signify heartburn.

When news dropped last week that they were on their way to electronic devices, many people said they’d be quick to use them — including the American Lung Association.

“We’re so excited!” the organization tweeted.

Thermidor, who worked toward the inclusion of the organs as part of her larger plan to create more medical emojis, agreed that bringing the icons into the digital lexicon could have a positive impact on how people talk about their well-being.

“You may just think of emoji as a fun messaging tool — however, they could be used to start some serious conversations about our health, and we need to get people talking about these organs and the fact more people need to donate them to save lives,” she said in an e-mail to the Globe. “Social media, including emoji, can be really powerful in inspiring people to talk about organ donation.”

Thermidor also drafted proposals for the blood drop emoji, stethoscope emoji, and band-aid emoji, which recently hit keyboards late last year, she said.

For his part, He hopes to continue working with the group to help bring other medically-inspired emojis to the masses in the years to come. He said other ideas were pitched for the latest round released by Unicode, but those ones didn’t make the cut — at least for now.

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“There’s a lot more that could be coming down the pipeline,” he said.

But don’t hold your breath, because He’s not revealing which ones.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.