Doctor draws on cartoons for persuasive public health messaging


The cartoon showed a COVID vaccine syringe in the form of a gun held against a recipient’s head. It listed those not responsible if the vaccine — hastily researched and manufactured — went awry: drugmakers, doctors, the government. Then it asked who’s “irresponsible” if they don’t get the shot: You.

Joe Betancourt thought: What a great cartoon.

Betancourt is no antivaxxer. In fact, he’s pretty much the opposite. He’s an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, senior vice president for equity and community health at Massachusetts General Hospital, and founder of MGH’s Disparities Solutions Center. But he knows an effective post when he sees one, even if he disagrees with its message, and thinks it’s time for more persuasive public health communications.

“This is an example of a simple message,” Betancourt said. “Nobody can guarantee anything. Nobody assumes responsibility for what’s going to happen with the vaccine, but if you don’t get it, you’re responsible. That’s a very powerful message, the creativity makes the message.”

The post catches viewers’ attention. It provokes emotion, anger even, at a perceived injustice. That kind of visceral reaction and mobilizing impact is all too rare a result of health communications today, Betancourt says, and the shortcoming has been apparent as coordinated efforts to deal with the global pandemic rolled out in real time.

And he is not alone in this opinion.

Thomas Deisboeck, an HMS associate professor of radiology and associate in neuroscience at MGH’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, helped organize a virtual exploratory seminar last spring at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to jump-start a conversation around innovating in health communications. The gathering drew about two dozen experts in health care, art, and technology, including Betancourt.

“Anything that improves the information transfer, that makes it bidirectional and not just a download from a doctor to a patient, is worth exploring,” Deisboeck said. “Let’s think of visual communication strategies that are beyond the ‘Let’s come up with a cooler Powerpoint template.’ What can we learn from illustration? From visual narratives and animation? From the methods and techniques in comics, from illustrations in children’s books?”

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