This doctor’s Instagram is helping future medics pass their exams
By any metric you’d care to mention, Sarah Clifford is having a good year. For a start, she’s now Doctor Sarah Clifford having graduated from medical school in June. That’s a huge achievement in itself, but while studying she also managed to amass over 68,000 followers on Instagram simply by sharing her beautifully illustrated study notes with the world.
To wrap up an excellent 2017, when I speak to her on a cold night in October, she’s just about to do a talk at London’s Regent Street Apple Store, where she’ll guide a live audience through her drawing technique. The giant screens next to the stairs will soon blow her study notes up to around 30 times their original size. “I never intended for other people to see them – they were just my personal notes,” she tells me. “And now they’re on that massive board.”
Of course, compared to her volume of Instagram followers, tonight’s audience will be relatively puny – around 50 chairs are set up in front of the stage, along with the foot traffic from people examining the nearby electronic goodies. Normally Clifford doesn’t have this kind of contact with the people reading her notes, though she’s pretty sure they’re there for the education rather than to appreciate the sketches as art. “From the way I’ve interacted with them and the way they’ve been tagging their friends, I think the majority of people who follow me are either medical students, or pre-med students,” she says.
That feels appropriate, given how life-changing the notes ended up being for her. As a child, Clifford had no interest in the sciences, and the dense text-heavy reference books did nothing to grow an interest in medicine. One day, when a teacher explained a concept with a diagram on the board, a light switch flipped and she understood it. “I felt like a genius,” she recalls.
That was particularly helpful to the young Sarah Clifford who had kept “tons of notebooks” filled with doodles – even if they showed no ambitions to move into medicine. “I had this idea of being the most revolutionary architect who’d make a house built of bouncy castles, and there’s be slides instead of stairs, and swimming pools in the kitchen sink,” she laughs, when I ask about her childhood ambitions.
In any case, architecture’s loss will be medicine’s gain – and not just because Clifford will be donning her own scrubs next June. Alongside her 68,000 Instagram followers, she has sold over a thousand sets of PDF notes to other medical students directly through her website. “It blew me away,” she confesses. “I think I’ve sold about 1,500 copies already across 55 different countries and over 500 universities – so it’s wide, but not many from each area, so I want to try and up that.” That’s part of the reason she’s enjoying a gap year now – after all, junior doctors aren’t known for having a great deal of free time for drawing.
This current medical hiatus is part of why she finds herself at the Apple Store, as part of the Big Draw festival. She does all her sketches on an iPad Pro now, but peculiarly her favourite thing about the medium is how close it feels to drawing with a pen and paper, as she did a decade ago for her A Levels. “I can create exactly what it’s like on pen and paper – which is not what you’d expect to be the best thing about an iPad, but it’s really useful.” Being able to zoom in for greater detail is definitely a bonus too – as is the eraser, which has saved her a fortune in Tipex.
While writing on glass isn’t quite the same, it does come with its own advantages: “pages get dog eared and stained,” she says with the tone of someone who has had her notes ruined before. “Digital definitely has the edge.”
Later on, I get to see this edge first hand, as tens of iPad Pros are loaned to members of the audience to draw along with Clifford’s patient instruction. Some are definitely better than others – though I don’t take part this time. Once bitten, twice shy. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter how good the drawings are, as long as they make the medical theory stick. “You really don’t have to make things look beautiful,” she says, adding that a loveheart works just as well as a bloody, anatomically-correct ticker. “You don’t need to be an artist: you can learn in that way too.”
Okay. But what does she hate drawing? Hands. “The other day I was making some notes on rheumatoid arthritis. That was tough.
“I got there in the end, it just takes a little longer.”