How Henry Ford Health System is handling pushback on vaccine mandate

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As more hospitals and health systems make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees, they are addressing concerns from unvaccinated workers, while navigating the pandemic's trajectory and a delta variant that is spreading. Here, Bob Riney, president of healthcare operations and COO of Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, discusses how it's approaching its mandate and offers advice to peers related to enforcement.

Handling pushback from workers 

Henry Ford, which employs more than 33,000 people, announced June 29 that it will require workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. The requirement takes effect Sept. 10 and applies to team members, students, volunteers and contractors.  

As of July 30, 73 percent of Henry Ford employees had received at least one vaccine dose. Still, there have been those who oppose a mandate.

Protesting, which included some Henry Ford workers, occurred July 17 in front of Henry Ford West Bloomfield (Mich.) Hospital and Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. Organizer Amber Castro of Westland, Mich., told the newspaper protesting also occurred at three other Henry Ford Health System hospitals — in Clinton Township, Wyandotte and Jackson, Mich.

"We are not anti-vax. We are not unvaccinated out here. There are people who got the COVID vaccine. We are all out here because we do not believe the vaccine should be mandated," said Ms. Castro, who is not a healthcare worker but said she was speaking as a voice for these workers, according to the report.

Mr. Riney said the health system and protesters were mutually respectful during the event. 

"The first thing we're doing is sticking to our values, which is treating people with respect, whether they view our mandate as something they agree with or not," he said.

The protesters "expressed their views, and they got those views heard to a broader audience, and we're fine with that," added Mr. Riney. 

Amid concerns from some employees, Henry Ford is offering daily communications in the health system's internal electronic newsletter related to vaccination, as well as providing information about the science and data behind vaccines.

Henry Ford leaders are also visiting with individuals in Henry Ford facilities who might be hesitant to get vaccinated to learn what their concerns are, Mr. Riney said. The health system then can provide the employee with more data, or possibly a connection with a physician or someone else who could help address their concerns. 

Mr. Riney said Henry Ford is also holding virtual town halls and employee listening sessions where employees can ask questions and voice opinions in front of physicians and health system executives.

"We're finding them to be very transparent and very effective. That doesn't mean we're changing everyone's mind who is opposed to a vaccine mandate, but I think they are grateful we're not filtering their questions or shying away in any way, shape or form in addressing their concerns to the best of our ability," he said.

Additionally, Mr. Riney said Henry Ford is considering population segments that may want to hear from people in those same segments. For example, one of the health system's leading African American physicians talked to workers about her own vaccination hesitancy and journey. 

"She put together a video vignette, and ultimately why she made the choice to get vaccinated early on and why she's urged all of her colleagues and patients to do so. And likewise, a nurse speaking to nurses, or an entry-level employee speaking to other entry-level employees," said Mr. Riney. "We've tried to make sure our messages are not only crisp and clear but relatable, and in many cases, delivered by individuals who would be viewed as trusted and objective sources. I think we're doing a comprehensive and holistic approach to building the right kind of information."

Based on these efforts and the increased number of workers scheduling vaccination appointments, he said he is optimistic the health system's vaccination rate will grow 1 to 2 percentage points every few days over the next several weeks. 

Advice when enforcing mandates

Many hospitals and health systems are facing significant staffing shortages at the same time they are tasked with enforcing mandates. 

"Doing the right thing doesn't always come at the most convenient time," and that lack of convenience "doesn't negate the obligations to do the right thing," Mr. Riney said.

"We believe having a workforce that is fully vaccinated is absolutely the right thing and obviously supported by science and facts. We would not defer that decision because we happen to be part of a nationwide labor and recruitment challenge, because doing the right thing doesn't come with a deferral until situations are ideal," he said. "With that said, there's no question that puts extra stress on all of us in making sure we're connecting with our team members and engaging with them in a very significant and meaningful way to let them know they matter and what they do matters, not just for us but for the community they serve."

He recommended that hospitals and health systems use many forums to communicate with employees about vaccines, as some people like electronic materials, some like hand-delivered or written printed materials, some like a text, and some want their leader to come to their work environment and have a one-on-one conversation with them. 

"One size doesn't fit all. And the more you can get in tune with what works for various individuals, I think you have a higher likelihood of success," said Mr. Riney.  

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