Vaccination rates are lagging, but these 5 communication strategies might help

The U.S. acknowledged it will not meet its goal of having 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Americans who are enthusiastic about getting vaccinated against COVID-19 have already received their shots, so healthcare communication professionals are doubling down on their efforts to reach vaccine-hesitant populations.

Below are five things for healthcare marketers to keep in mind as they continue their vaccination campaigns:

  1. Ask questions. Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist at NYC Health + Hospitals, said the most meaningful conversations she has had with vaccine-hesitant healthcare workers were the ones in which she took the time to fully understand their unique concerns and standpoints.

    "For those who regularly interact with health workers who are hesitant to get vaccinated, there’s a lot we can do as colleagues," she said. "Just asking questions like, 'The last year has been really hard for all of us. Do you want to talk about your experience and what you think about the Covid-19 vaccine?' can go a long way."

  2. Emphasize the need for greater health equity. Many Americans, especially people of color and Americans with low incomes, have personal experiences that back up their distrust in healthcare institutions. Messaging should not dismiss these valid concerns, but rather communicate how vaccines will help protect populations that have been hit hardest by COVID-19.

  3. Prioritize accessibility. Some vaccine-hesitant people are more likely to get vaccines if they are offered at trusted community locations. This insight was central for Madison, Wis.-based UW Health's vaccination campaign, as the system offered vaccinations in clinics and locations that are known and trusted within the community in addition to its larger hospitals and clinics. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, the system's chief diversity officer, said Dane County, where Madison is located, has one of the nation’s highest rates of vaccination in the Latinx community, due partly because UW Health firmly grounded its campaign in the community.

    "Just as important as location is having a trusted messenger," she said. "In addition to our partnerships with Latinx community groups, we worked with one of UW Health’s Latinx primary care physicians, Dr. Patricia Téllez-Girón, to deliver multimedia messages to the community in Spanish."

  4. Keep pointing back to research and science. Hospital executives and clinicians can't definitively say COVID-19 vaccines will never cause long-term effects, but they can continue to communicate that there is no scientific evidence pointing toward those fears, emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen, MD.

    For example, many Americans believe the false claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility. D'Angela Pitts, MD, obstetrician at Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, said she's found it helpful to explain to her patients that COVID-19 vaccine trial participants have gotten pregnant and carried safe, full-term pregnancies. She said it's also helpful to explain that the CDC has tracked more than 35,000 pregnant women who received coronavirus vaccines, finding no increase in miscarriages or adverse outcomes.

  5. Exercise empathy. Patronizing lectures won't help unvaccinated Americans get their COVID-19 shots, according to Nick Talley, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at the Chapel Hill-based University of North Carolina and editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Australia, and Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco. Patiently listening to people's concerns and presenting factual information with empathy is a more effective strategy.

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