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It’s now officially flu season, which means more patients than ever need to get vaccines in addition to the usual shots. But given the rise in anti-vaccination sentiment over the past few years, some patients are suspicious of anyone in a white lab coat who tells them that they, or their children, need vaccinations. Even patients who aren’t “antivaxxers” will likely have more questions about vaccinations than they would have a few years ago, simply due to the uptick in news stories. Here are 10 things to keep in mind as you prepare to talk to your patients about vaccinations:

1. Start a conversation.

In past decades, you might have been able to run through the required vaccination spiel and administered an IM injection without getting a single question from patients. But now we live in a time where misinformation about vaccinations is rife and infectious disease rates are rising due to reduced vaccinations–and people have a lot to say about it. When you’re talking to patients about vaccinations, create a two-way conversation rather than a one-way dump of information that shuts out the patient.

2. Acknowledge their concern and listen to them.

Especially when it comes to their kids, many parents are very concerned about vaccinations and the potentially adverse effects they can have. In these situations, dismissing their concerns outright will often only confirm their perceptions that the medical establishment doesn’t care about their worries, further entrenching this position. Instead, empathize with them, listen to their concerns and communicate that you also want to keep their kids as healthy as possible.

3. Use plain language and specific examples.

Medical jargon means nothing to most patients, and definitely not to their kids. When talking to patients, use language that’s accurate yet easy to understand. It can also help to use specific individual examples to really illustrate the power of vaccines–for example, maybe you know a patient who refused to get the flu vaccine and ended up contracting the flu that season. While a single example isn’t statistical proof, it is easier for patients to grasp.

4. Communicate your credentials.

“Of course, patients should know I’m competent! I’ve been to medical school and have been practicing for years!” you may think. However, there’s a perception among certain groups of patients that so-called outside experts are more trustworthy than doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. If a patient seems reluctant to believe you, you may need to gently work your credentials into the conversation to show that you really do know what you’re talking about.

5. Emphasize the safety of vaccines.

Most patients’ concerns center on vaccine safety and whether or not it will have unintentional side effects. To help assuage their fear, focus on the safety of vaccines and how rare side effects are. Having some numbers about their safety, such as the tiny percentage of people who develop side effects, can also be helpful. (More on using statistics wisely below.)

6. Explain the consequences of diseases.

Over the past few decades, vaccination rates have risen and infectious disease rates have dropped, so many people have no firsthand experience of the illnesses they’re being vaccinated against. In fact, they might not even know what the symptoms are. While it’s great that we’re no longer afraid of so many killer epidemics, this does mean that patients have no idea just how serious these diseases can be. While you should never fear monger, you might need to factually explain exactly what the various vaccinations protect against.

7. Have some numbers handy.

While inundating patients with numbers will likely cause them to glaze over and check out, having one or two well-placed statistics ready can go a long way. For instance, if a patient says that their child doesn’t need the MMR vaccine because “no one gets the measles anymore,” you can point out that there have actually been 1,250 confirmed cases of the measles in the U.S. since the beginning of 2019, many of them linked to a lack of vaccines.

8. Know what the internet is telling them.

In order to successfully debate an opponent, you’d brainstorm all the advantages they’d point out and then find ways to refute them, right? In the same vein, you can’t successfully argue against the anti-vaccination movement without knowing their claims and evidence (or the lack thereof), and most patients are getting this information from the internet. If you’re seeing a lot of patients who are resistant to getting vaccines, it might be worthwhile to explore what the other side is telling them so you can argue against it more persuasively.

9. Make sure your staff presents a united front.

If patients are already predisposed to distrust the medical establishment, this suspicion will only be heightened if they hear one thing from a nurse and another thing from a doctor regarding vaccinations. Meet with your staff regularly to keep them up to date on the latest findings and to establish your talking points. Giving patients two different pieces of information will only confuse them further, so everyone needs to be on the same page.

10. Be prepared for counterarguments.

Despite all these preparations, some patients are still going to have questions and counterarguments for you. Instead of brushing them off or shutting them down, engage with them and show that you care. Try to see the concern and worry fueling these arguments instead of only dwelling on the surface claims. For some people, getting vaccines for their children is a very emotional decision–instead of just a rational one–and you’ll need to proceed accordingly.

As a medical professional, you’re almost always a patient’s most trustworthy source on vaccines, even if they don’t believe it quite yet. Keep these 10 tips in mind as you prepare to talk to your patients about vaccines.

Deborah Swanson
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