How to address vaccine hesitancy with your patients in five steps

Health care providers are consistently ranked as the most trusted source of vaccination information by patients. And with decreasing rates across several types of vaccinations, including the flu and COVID-19 boosters, it’s more important than ever to remain prepared to talk with our patients about the importance of vaccinations.

With the help of UI Health Care vaccine hesitancy expert Aaron Scherer, PhD, we’ve provided five techniques to help.

Aaron Scherer, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine with a research program primarily focused on identifying factors that affect vaccine confidence and how to better communicate about infectious disease risk and vaccines. His research in this area has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the European Union, with current funding by the CDC and the NIH/National Institute on Aging. Scherer has provided his expertise to numerous groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, including as a member of the WHO’s Behavioral and Social Drivers of COVID-19 Vaccination Work Group and the Gerontological Society of America COVID-19 Task Force.

1. Provide a strong recommendation for vaccinations

Studies have found that when a health care provider tells their patient to choose to receive a vaccine, vaccination rates can be as much as 20%-40% higher than when a recommendation isn’t made, or the vaccine isn’t offered. It’s important you recommend vaccinations to your patients and offer them the opportunity to get vaccinated at an upcoming clinic appointment.

2. Use the ‘what else?’ tactic

When a patient seems hesitant about getting a vaccine, ask them what they are most concerned about. Then, instead of immediately trying to address their concern, try asking, “What else are you concerned about?” Keep asking until the patient runs out of concerns. When they are done, be sure to thank them for sharing their concerns.

Not only will this help the patient feel like you care and are listening to them, but it will also give you a sense about whether the patient’s concerns are primarily a lack of knowledge (i.e., they simply need additional information) or if there’s something else underlying their hesitation (e.g., feeling a loss of control; wanting to reduce uncertainty; political or religious ideology). We also know that hearing all the patient’s concerns upfront will help the provider efficiently address them.

3. Ask the patient’s permission to provide information

Ask the patient if you may speak with them about your perspective on vaccinations. This can increase a patient’s sense of personal control and make them less likely to respond defensively to what you might have to say.

It could be something as simple as, “I understand that getting a new vaccine can be scary and lead to many questions. Can we take a minute to discuss?”

If you yourself have been vaccinated, share your vaccination experience with them to signal to your patient that you believe it is safe.

4. Direct patients to credible resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization remain reliable resources for COVID-19 vaccine information, as well as information on the flu, RSV, and other respiratory illness.

5. Building and maintaining trust is everything

The level of trust between you and your patient is likely going to be more persuasive than any specific information you might provide them.

Avoid doing things that might undermine that trust, such as talking down to them or getting upset if they choose to decline getting vaccinated.  Always recognize that health care decisions are the patient’s to make and we are here to help them have all the data they need to make the best decision for them and their family.

You also need to trust your patients; don’t assume that you’ve failed to persuade them if they decline a vaccine during the visit. Some patients simply need time to process what you’ve talked about. In fact, research suggests that patients will often get vaccinated at a future office visit or at another site after having a discussion with their health care provider.

2 comments

  1. Vaccines and the strategies mentioned above are helpful. I’d like to add that 1 in 10 adults have needle phobia leading to healthcare avoidance. The number of children with needle phobia is higher. Development of needle phobia can result from previously poorly managed needle experiences as children or adults. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, vaccination uptake may be improved when clinicians identify concerns related to needle phobia and develop plans to support the patient which may include local numbing medicines, distraction, positioning and at times anxiolytic premedication. In the long run, I’d like to offer that and additional strategy to improve vaccine uptake may be through prevention of poorly managed needle experiences during childhood through numbing the skin, distraction and upright positioning. Thank you!

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