When Naomi Tesema got an email in December 2020 seeking volunteers with arts or visual design interests to work with the University of Chicago Library on COVID-19 education, she was intrigued. The first part of her M1 year was wrapping up, so she had spare time, and she had had done some graphic design before – for a friend’s wedding, a baby shower, and a number of student groups as an undergraduate at Emory University.
Little did Tesema know volunteering her skills would lead to publication in a top medical journal and a national stage to discuss combatting health misinformation.
On Friday, October 29, Tesema will share the work she did with fellow Pritzker School of Medicine M2 Cathy Luo at a national symposium sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “Confronting Health Misinformation: Gaps and Opportunities for Health Professions Educators,” highlighting the role infographics can play in building trust in vaccines.
“I never expected any of this when I first expressed interest,” Tesema said. “It’s really humbling in a sense because I was like, ‘Wow, this is something people are really interested in and I can really talk about.’”
The virtual conference aims to define health misinformation and outline practical strategies health professionals can employ to build trust with patients and confront health misinformation. Tesema will lead a breakout session discussing the infographics she created for UChicago Library’s COVID-19 vaccine resource center. The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), American Association of College of Pharmacy (AACP), and American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) are co-hosting the conference.
The project started in anticipation of the roll out of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Tesema and Luo both had existing interest in art and graphic design, so the chance to fuse that with their interest in medicine seemed an obvious fit.
“Art has always been really important to me,” Luo said. “It’s also a really great learning tool and a way of connecting to other people and conveying complex ideas or feelings.”
To help make the complex science behind the vaccines more understandable and accessible to the general public, Tesema and Luo collaborated with librarians and infectious disease specialists. Tesema created two graphics to explain in simple terms how the vaccines were developed and tested, how effective they are, and potential side effects. Luo designed a series of FAQ graphics to address common questions about the benefits, safety, and efficacy of the vaccines.
“As the vaccines were coming out we were seeing so much misinformation,” Tesema said. “We kind of expected it, but there were just a lot of news articles coming out.”
Those news articles, Tesema said, could be difficult at times for the average person to digest, which is where easy-to-read infographics could fill a gap, meeting audiences where they are and providing clear, simple information that makes them less susceptible to misinformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated a need for this kind of thoughtful scientific communication and confrontation of misinformation. Seeing this need and inspired by prominent vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, giving a grand rounds presentation at UChicago in February, Pritzker launched a pilot elective course in spring 2021 called “Improving Scientific Communication and Addressing Misinformation.”
“Given the widespread problem of medical misinformation and the recent declaration by the U.S. Surgeon General that it is an urgent threat to public health, it is imperative that medical schools take the lead in coaching future physicians not only to interpret evidence and science, but also address medical misinformation in a way that promotes patient trust in the healthcare profession and in treatments that we know work, such as vaccines,” Arora said.
Added Serritella: “Being able to combat misinformation and communicate science and its impact literally has the ability to change the world, the tide of public health, and save people’s lives. There has been no better case study example than the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Serritella further drove home the significance of training young medical trainees and scientists with the skills to clearly communicate science by pointing to a 2016 National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey that found only 31% of respondents believed they had a “clear understanding of what it means” when they read or heard the term “scientific study.” This, Serritella said, indicates “a huge gap between what is normal and taken for granted as accepted in the medical community” and what the public knows.
Luo called the Pritzker course “eye-opening” and said it has prompted her to think more critically about how to use imagery and graphic design to meet patients where they are.
“We got to think about who our audience was, how to frame information in way that’s understandable to the audience and relevant to the audience,” Luo said. “A lot of the misinformation or mistrust around the vaccines is really around not understanding the science behind it.”
Tesema said through her involvement in the library’s infographics project she has come to see the work of addressing misinformation as a critical mission for healthcare professionals, especially given her own identities.
“It’s almost like an obligation to get as much good information out there as possible, especially when you think about the communities I come from, being Black, being an immigrant,” Tesema said. “I knew that when I was talking to certain communities that I was a part of, for them it wasn’t that I needed to explain the science; it was just ‘I have a general distrust of medical personnel and the government,’ so I would say something different, and I would sort of curate what I said to address those concerns.”
Tesema, an active Student National Medical Association (SNMA) member at Pritzker, added that knowing how her communities were being impacted by misinformation made efforts to combat it personal for her. She also understood that as a medical student she had the privilege of access to information and experts that others do not.
“We have Zooms where we talk to some of the leaders in healthcare and the leaders in vaccination,” Tesema said “I’ve heard from the people that make it on the news, and those are the people that my parents and my family end up watching.”
Luo and Tesema agreed the communication skills and ability to spot and address misinformation will play a prominent role in their careers going forward. But their efforts now, the subject of a forthcoming trainee letter to the editor in Academic Medicine, illuminate the role medical students can play in fighting a pandemic and the misinformation that comes with it.
“Medical students should always be perceived as more than just a ‘trainee,’ but also a value-added member of the healthcare team,” Arora said. “Addressing medical misinformation using evidence-based strategies is one way that medical students can add value and also learn a lifelong skill they will need to improve communication and trust in medical care for their patients.”