If Deisboeck had his way, pro-vaccine messages and health communications on an array of topics would be just as powerful as those of anti-vaxxers. Deisboeck is something of a medical entrepreneur. He received his M.D. from the Technical University of Munich in 1996 and today conducts research in complex biosystems, from oncology to COVID-19.

But he also went to business school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 2011, and has consulted on digital health care in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. And then there’s his passion for cartooning. Deisboeck took up the art form in high school, put it down a few years later in favor of his medical studies, but returned to it in recent years. Today, he’s at work illustrating children’s books, an upcoming series, and penning single-panel editorial cartoons that appear in publications like the online parody site The Satirist.

Vaccine cartooj
Deisboeck believes art is a way to fight medical misinformation, including anti-vaccine messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Illustration by Thomas Deisboeck

Deisboeck organized the seminar to take advantage of what he perceived as a moment of opportunity to improve health communications. Cartooning and graphic arts, even comic books, have been used in the past, but only rarely in an effective, coordinated way that can make a difference in patients’ behavior, improve adherence to treatment plans, hike their understanding of medical conditions, and improve things like vaccine uptake. Technology, Deisboeck said, offers the chance to try new approaches, like video games and virtual-reality headsets, as is done for kids undergoing chemotherapy at Boston Children’s Hospital.

In some ways, the fight will be not just to innovate, but to convince administrators that the battle is worth the time and resources. Betancourt said that health communications has never received the kind of attention it deserves. He pointed out that there already are principles for effective communications — using graphics, easy-to-understand language, simple messages that capture an issue’s core.

“The science is there on how to do it. But neither the time nor the resources are invested in doing it all the time for everyone,” Betancourt said. “In general, health care has not put a premium on being thoughtful and creative around their communications. They haven’t followed the science as much as we should. The gap is literally investments in time, resources, and creativity.”

For Deisboeck, the existing challenge is to build on the exploratory seminar’s brainstorming, to convince the medical establishment that this is not only important, but has the potential — if done right, by recruiting top-level talent and investing time and resources — to make a significant difference. During the seminar, he said, work focused on strategies to reach four groups: those for whom English is a second language, Latino families, the elderly, and medical students.

“We have tools — digital tools, platforms — that could actually take it to the next level,” Deisboeck said. “Even at these top institutions, it’s still very much on the innovation side. Clearly this is cool, kids take to it, we think there’s a benefit, but how do we institutionalize the effort? How do we actually get it into the mainstream?”

One way, Deisboeck said, would be to mount a pilot study that illustrates outcome improvements with concrete statistics, like treatment adherence and hospital readmission rates. Once those numbers are in hand, discussions can begin about the issue of paying for it — will it be reimbursable? Considered part of treatment?

“Health care and medicine are very data-driven,” Deisboeck said. “No one will dispute that it looks better, but ultimately, visual-art-supported communications will only stay around if it really does improve care, measurably, and if we can afford it.”