How Primary Care Can Fight Vaccine Resistance

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There’s a “science” behind communicating medical information to patients, and COVID-19 vaccine education is no different. The highly politicized rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine and non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow the spread of the virus may have played a larger role in vaccine hesitancy than we realize. Disinformation can travel as far and as quickly across the internet as accurate information. Sometimes, disinformation can even outpace the truth.

However, physicians can address the scourge of disinformation. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that areas with higher numbers of primary care providers per 100,000 residents had a 5.5 percent higher COVID-19 vaccination rate than those with fewer doctors. Researchers estimated that every 10 additional primary care providers per 100,000 people increased the overall vaccination rate by 0.3 percent. The study identified this positive correlation even in rural areas where people were overall less likely to get vaccinated.

Why is this?

Primary care physicians and providers are critical sources of information for their communities, serving as the human connection between evidence-based medical science and patient health. They serve as a personal source of truth for their patents. Being that human conduit — or the pathos, if you will — may be the key to fighting vaccine hesitancy.

There are two primary ways physicians may be able to help ease their patients’ concerns about vaccination, whether it be for COVID-19, the flu, or other viruses.

Enhancing Your Relationship With Your Patients

The patient-provider relationship is integral to patient health outcomes, and a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine shows that it has a far greater impact than initially realized. The longitudinal study found empirical evidence that a trusting patient-provider relationship was associated with “improved functional health,” especially among older patients with chronic illnesses. Not only do patients report greater satisfaction when they have a positive relationship with their physician, patients who trust their physicians may be more likely to follow through with care plans.

However, it can be difficult to build this relationship. Visits with patients sometimes move quickly — often too quickly. From heavy administrative burdens to financial and regulatory requirements, you may spend more time taking notes after hours than spending time with your patients. Improving your relationship with your patients is possible with partners, such as managed service organizations (MSOs) and physician enablement organizations that can help offload that work so you can focus on your patient care. And by taking five minutes during visits to educate patients on vaccines and their benefits, as well as discuss their general health concerns, you may help strengthen your relationship.

Physicians can also enhance patient relationships by using empathetic communication. Research shows that the most impactful vaccine communication occurs when the communicator has both established trust with the listener through mutual respect and communicated the information in a clear, concise, and actionable manner that the audience can relate to, such as storytelling. Building the patient-provider relationship develops that trust. Patients who trust their physicians are more likely to follow their advice and comply with their care plans.

In addition to trust, the language a physician uses significantly influences a patient’s healthcare decision. In another survey examining the effectiveness of vaccine rhetoric, respondents were more likely to get vaccinated if their physician told them information about the vaccine rather than asking if they received it. Having an open discussion with patients about their hesitations surrounding the vaccine may help reduce misinformation.

Although vaccine hesitancy is unlikely to disappear in the near future, enhancing your relationship with patients and using patient-centered communication may improve patient care and increase vaccine rates.

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