Tackling Vaccine Hesitancy: 4 Strategies for Communicating with Patients, Family, and Friends

It’s been a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic changed daily life for Americans. But after twelve months of staying home as much as possible, the end seems to be in sight. On March 8, the CDC released new guidance for fully-vaccinated people. Two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, people can:

  • Gather indoors with other fully-vaccinated people without masks or social distancing
  • Gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one household without masks, if no one present is at risk for severe COVID-19 illness

Want to see your grandkids? Longing for a mask-free game night with another family? The COVID-19 vaccine is your ticket to a little more freedom. But despite that tantalizing opportunity, some patients may still hesitate to get the vaccine. Anti-vaccine sentiment may not be the reason, either.

In an interview with Nature, Kizzmekia Corbett, NIH immunologist and vaccine advocate who helped develop the Moderna vaccine, said, “For a long time, we left the general public on the outside of vaccine development, until it was time to give them their shot. And that’s just unacceptable. ...they don’t have any idea what went into it. So, our goal is to inform people.”

It sounds simple, but informing the populace is a monumental task. Most doctors, nurses, and pharmacists don’t have much time for consultation or aren’t adequately compensated for that kind of work. So while the following suggestions are directed towards healthcare professionals, they apply to anyone. Take the initiative and talk to your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors about their vaccine plans. Remember, we’re in this together.

Recommend it directly

According to a 2008 study, the biggest reason adults refuse vaccines is because their doctor hasn’t explicitly recommended them. Make a point of asking patients about their vaccine status during office or telehealth visits. If you’re a patient and want your doctor’s take on the vaccine, just ask.

Tell them about your vaccine experience

If you’re a healthcare professional, you’ve hopefully received your vaccine by now. Use your confidence in the vaccine to put patients’ minds at ease. Another way to show how safe and common the vaccine is would be to have the vaccinated staff at your office or pharmacy wear a pin or sticker that says, “I’ve been vaccinated.”

Set expectations

Every state is conducting vaccination differently. Check that patients understand when they’ll be eligible, how to get an appointment, and what kind of side effects to expect. Many patients who have side effects from the annual flu shot will likely have some symptoms from the COVID-19 shot. That’s a good way to assess whether they’ll have injection-site soreness, chills, or fatigue.

Don’t brush off their questions or concerns

A patronizing tone will turn off any patient. For example, if a patient expresses concern about the vaccine, don’t launch into a rehearsed lecture. Hit pause. Ask your patient of what, specifically, they are afraid. A good way to phrase it:

May I ask why you’re concerned? What have you heard in your community?

Then consider the root causes of the patient’s fears:

Lack of knowledge

The patient may not have been keeping up with the news. They might be confused about the differences between the three available vaccines. They may have been misinformed about how the vaccines work or how they are made. Consider having some educational materials about the vaccines ready in your office or pharmacy for patients to take home with them.

Lack of trust in medical professionals

Historically, BIPOC Americans and under-represented communities have experienced a great deal of mistreatment at the hands of some medical researchers and doctors. Some patients may have personally experienced poor treatment. Patients without documentation may be afraid they’ll be reported to ICE if they get the vaccine. These are all legitimate concerns. To shy away from them would be a mistake.

Ask if the patient trusts you to tell them the truth. If so, answer their questions about the vaccine clearly. If not, ask what you can do to win their trust.

Concern about the speed of development

Perhaps Operation Warp Speed was not an ideal name. Many Americans are under the impression that the COVID-19 vaccines were developed too fast, and therefore should not be trusted. But that’s not the case; no steps were skipped. As HealthDay News reported, the difference “was the amount of money invested by the government, which allowed vaccine development to happen all at once, rather than sequentially.” In addition, pharmaceutical manufacturers and researchers pooled their resources and expertise.

Nevertheless, some patients want to “wait and see” what happens to vaccinated patients. But all of the available vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of volunteers. At this point, 90 million Americans have been vaccinated. By this point, it would be clear if the vaccines were unsafe.

Systemic obstacles

There are, unfortunately, barriers to vaccination that a doctor can’t fix. In many states, patients need an internet-connected computer to sign up for an appointment, and a car to get there (or even to get the vaccine, if drive-through vaccination is the only option). This is where family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and other community members need to look out for each other. Local faith groups, libraries, or senior groups may be able to help direct patients to nearby vaccination venues and give them a ride, if needed.

In short, have empathy for vaccine-hesitant patients. Researcher Heidi Larson “recommends beginning conversations by asking people how they’ve been coping or what they miss most… A narrow focus on getting the shot in their arms may overlook the fact that people’s lives have been undone in ways that vaccines can’t fix.” Patients want to feel heard and understood. Giving them an opportunity to share their fears might be enough to change a patients’ mind.

As citizens, we need to take an active role in vaccine education. COVID-19 is a community problem and needs community solutions. Healthcare professionals, family, friends, and neighbors will need to work together to educate each other and make vaccinations happen. Start the process by listening to each other.