Coronavirus vaccination: 4 best practices for communicating with patients

By Christopher Cheney

Clinicians need to take a multipronged approach to communicating with their patients about coronavirus vaccination, a Yale New Haven Health expert says.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the country, vaccination is a key implement in the public health toolbox. Vaccination is widely viewed as essential to controlling the coronavirus through herd immunity, which occurs when a large proportion of a population develops resistance to an infection.

There are four best practices clinicians should follow when communicating with people to encourage them to get coronavirus vaccination, says Richard Martinello, MD, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health in New Haven, Connecticut.

1. Cast vaccination as part of wider infection prevention strategy

“Not only with coronavirus vaccination but also with flu, sometimes we focus on the act of getting vaccinated as being the preventive effort. While vaccination is a key part of our overall public health strategy to prevent disease, it is only one part of a multifaceted approach to keep people healthy,” Martinello says.

While the pandemic is wreaking havoc nationwide, clinicians should communicate that vaccination is only one of several preventive measures, he says. “Wearing a mask, social distancing, and getting vaccinated are key components for people to achieve their goals. Oftentimes, that can be a more productive conversation than one of simply saying, ‘We need you to get vaccinated.'”

2. Tap into patient values and goals

It important to understand a patient’s values and goals, then to communicate how vaccination is aligned with those values and goals, he says. “What do they want for themselves? What do they want for their family? Then, as physicians and others in healthcare, what we need to do is think about how to frame what we think are the right actions for the patient in the context of what their goals are.”

For example, many people feel the coronavirus pandemic has constrained their independence and ability to lead a “normal life,” Martinello says.

“Right now, some of us have a sense that our freedoms are being squelched. Doing what we can to decrease coronavirus transmission in our communities such as vaccination can allow us to regain those freedoms that we value—freedoms like being able to fly on a plane without having to worry about infection or the freedom to go out to a restaurant without having to worry,” he says.

3. Hold open conversations

To have productive conversations about coronavirus vaccination, clinicians need to be good listeners, Martinello says. “One of the first things we need to do is to listen to patients’ questions.”

It also is important to dispel misunderstandings about vaccination delicately, he says. “We need to respect that patients may have some deep-seated views; and we need to recognize that if they are accessing non-factual information, we have to be very cautious about how we approach those individuals to try to bring them around to understand the facts.”

Seeking common ground is a prime strategy to encourage skeptical people to get vaccinated, Martinello says. “One strategy to approach that conversation is to think about aspects that we may agree about. If someone has deep-seated feelings and concerns that lead them not to want to get vaccinated, we need to find aspects of that conversation where we can have information that we agree upon.”

4. Overcoming cultural barriers

Some minority groups, particularly African Americans, are suspicious of the medical community because of a history of injustice such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that began in the 1930s.

“This is an area where we need to have a great deal of humility and patience. We need to recognize that we may not completely understand the concerns that our patients have leading to their reluctance to get vaccinated. Trying to dig into those concerns can be very helpful to better understand where that reluctance is coming from,” Marinello says.

The safety of the coronavirus vaccines should be emphasized, he says. “If someone is concerned that they are being experimented on with these vaccines, we can acknowledge that these vaccines have been produced very quickly and made available to the public in a rapid fashion. If that is the concern, we can provide a better understanding as to why these vaccines were made available so quickly.”

First, this conversation can focus on the history of vaccine technology, Marinello says. “There has been a great deal of research over decades in the development of new vaccine technologies. From a scientific and pharmaceutical perspective, we were prepared for this virus and positioned to prepare vaccines in a rapid fashion.”

Second, the conversation can turn to how the coronavirus vaccines were developed, he says. “From a development perspective, these kinds of vaccines usually go through a very systematic and serial process to come to market. In the case of the coronavirus vaccines, there was so much investment that the developers of the vaccines were able to overlap those steps and do things concurrently rather than in a serial fashion. That helped make these vaccines available so quickly.”

Third, it is important to emphasize that minority populations are not being singled out for experimentation and that minority populations will be getting equal access to vaccination, Martinello says.

“It is helpful for minority patients to understand that these vaccines are being widely used among different sorts of people. It is helpful to tell these patients that there are a lot of efforts to ensure equity and justice in the way the vaccine is being distributed. We are not only trying to have the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We are also making sure that communities that may not have had adequate or equal access to vaccines in the past will have access to these vaccines so their communities can stay healthy.”

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.

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COVID-19, Medication Management