Public Health

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy: 10 tips for talking with patients

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

The data is clear: American’s aren’t getting their updated COVID-19 shots. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just 14% of Americans received the updated COVID-19 vaccine as of Nov. 4.

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And it’s not just COVID-19 vaccines that are lagging. The CDC says just 37.5% of American adults have received their flu shot so far. Uptake of the vaccine that prevents RSV is below par, too—with only 15.9% of those older 60 have received an RSV vaccine.

Physicians can help boost those numbers among the majority of patients who are not implacably opposed to vaccination, but who just have not made the effort or who have some questions.

“How we talk about vaccines with patients is very individual and it’s very personal. That is part of the beauty of the personal relationship with patients. The most important thing is bringing it up and having that chance to talk about it and having that chance to give your advice and your recommendation to the patient. And, of course, being open to their questions,” said Frederick M. Chen, MD, MPH, the AMA’s chief health and science officer.

“People do have a choice. They have a decision to make about it, but part of our job is being there at the right time for them and helping them make those decisions,” Dr. Chen added.

Internist Marie T. Brown, MD, the AMA's director of practice redesign, discussed strategies during a recent AMA webinar, "Vaccinations: Roadmap for Success." She also joined infectious disease specialist Constance A. Benson, MD, a professor of medicine and global public health at University of California, San Diego, in discussing tips during an AMA video interview in 2021.

Here are 10 key tips for talking with your patients.

It’s not the “celebrity doctors” or doctors sharing information on social media that patients trust for information. It’s their local doctor, according to recent research that a group of about a dozen physicians and other health-related organizations, including the AMA, conducted as part of an effort to mitigate the spread of medical misinformation.

Despite the burnout physicians may feel, data shows they can be effective in countering vaccine misinformation. KFF research has found that a person's own physician is the most trusted source for information on the COVID-19 vaccine, with 85% of respondents holding this belief no matter their gender, sex, ethnicity or political belief.

Adult patients say the second biggest reason they don't get an immunization is that a "doctor hasn't told me I need it," previously published research has shown.

Dr. Chen said: “As doctors, we know that, but sometimes we forget we have to actually say it and recommend it.”

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Some patients from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups may be hesitant because of mistrust in the medical community stemming from their own or loved one’s experiences with systemic racism in health care. Physicians should try to build trust, recognizing what has happened so they can then move forward.

If someone declines the vaccine, you can say, "May I ask why? What have you heard in your community?" It is a less judgmental way to find out what they may be thinking, giving patients the opportunity to give frank voice to concerns they might have while attributing them to others.

People hear and see a lot of misinformation in their social circles and on social media. As a physician, you need to correct any misinformation a patient may give for not getting the vaccine.

To reach people, no matter their political view—or whether they believe a vaccine is a personal choice or collective responsibility—focus the discussion on how getting a vaccine can help protect a loved one such as a grandparent, a child or someone who is immunocompromised.

Start a conversation by asking a patient how they felt after their last vaccination. Generally speaking, people tend to have the same reaction they had with the last vaccine, or even a milder reaction than the last one.

Stay updated with the AMA COVID-19 resource center for physicians, which among other things highlights resources available as part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ “We Can Do This” public education campaign to boost confidence in COVID-19 vaccination and reinforce basic prevention measures.

Everyone in your office who is vaccinated can wear a button or sticker showing they received their updated COVID-19 vaccine, reinforcing to people that the vaccine is safe and that you trust in it.

The public tends to weigh risks and benefits differently than physicians do, so telling stories that illustrate why the vaccine is important will have a stronger impact on patients.