Addressing vaccine hesitancy with patients


A compassionate approach

We navigate these difficult conversations over time with the approach of compassion and empathy, not hostility or bullying. As health care providers, we start by being good empathic listeners. Similar to when we have advance care planning and code status conversations, we cannot enter the dialogue with our intention, beliefs, or formulated goals for that person. We have to listen without judgement to the wide range of reasons why others are reluctant or unwilling to get the vaccine – historical mistrust, political identity, religious reasons, short-term side effects that may cause them to lose a day or two of work – and understand that for each person their reasons are different. The point is to not assume that you know or understand what barriers and beliefs they have towards vaccination, but to meet them at their point of view and listen while keeping your own emotions level and steady.

Identifying the reason for vaccine hesitancy is the first step to getting the unvaccinated closer to vaccination. Ask open ended questions: “Can you help me understand, what is your hesitancy to the vaccine?”; “What about the vaccine worries you?”; “What have you heard about/know about the COVID-19 vaccine?”; or “Can you tell me more about why you feel that way?” As meticulous as it sounds, we have to go back to the basics of patient interviewing.

It is important to remember that this is not a debate and escalation to arguments will certainly backfire. Think about any time you disagreed with someone on a topic. Did criticizing, blaming, and shaming ever convince you to change your beliefs or behaviors? The likely answer is, “No.” Avoid the “backfire effect”– which is when giving people facts disproving their “incorrect” beliefs can actually reinforce those beliefs. The more people are confronted with facts at odds with their opinions, the stronger they cling to those opinions. If you want them to change their mind, you cannot approach the conversation as a debate. You are having this vaccine discussion to try to meet the other person where they are, understand their position, and talk with them, and not at them, about their concerns.

As leaders in health care, we have to be willing to give up control and lead with empathy. We have to show others that we hear them, believe their concerns, and acknowledge that their beliefs are valid to them as individuals. Even if you disagree, this is not the place to let anger, disappointment, or resentment take a front seat. This is about balance, and highlighting the autonomy in decision making that the other person has to make a choice. Be humble in these conversations and avoid condescending tones or statements.

We already know that you are a caring health care provider. As hospitalists, we are frontline providers who have seen unnecessary deaths and illness due to COVID-19. You are passionate and motivated because you are committed to your oath to save lives. However, you have to check your own feelings and remember that you are not speaking with an unvaccinated person to make them get vaccinated, but rather to understand their cognitive process and hopefully walk with them down a path that provides them with a clarity of options they truly have. Extend empathy and they will see your motivation is rooted in good-heartedness and a concern for their wellbeing.

If someone admits to reasons for avoiding vaccination that are not rooted in any fact, then guide them to the best resources. Our health care system recently released a COVID-19 fact versus myth handout called Trust the Facts. This could be the kind of vetted resource you offer. Guide them to accredited websites, such as the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, or their local and state departments of health to help debunk fiction by reviewing it with them. Discuss myths such as, ‘the vaccine will cause infertility,’ ‘the vaccine will give me COVID,’ ‘the vaccine was rushed and is not safe,’ ‘the vaccine is not needed if I am young and healthy,’ ‘the vaccine has a microchip,’ etc. Knowledge is power and disinformation is deadly, but how facts are presented will make the biggest difference in how others receive them, so remember your role is not to argue with these statements, but rather to provide perspective without agreeing or disagreeing.

Respond to their concerns with statements such as, “I hear you…it sounds like you are worried/fearful/mistrusting about the side effects/safety/efficacy of the vaccine…can we talk more about that?” Ask them where these concerns come from – the news, social media, an article, word of mouth, friends, or family. Ask them about the information they have and show genuine interest that you want to see it from their perspective. This is the key to compassionate and empathic dialogue – you relinquish your intentions.

Once you know or unveil their reasons for hesitancy, ask them what they would like to see with regards to COVID-19 and ending the pandemic. Would they like to get back to a new normal, to visit family members, to travel once again, to not have to wear masks and quarantine? What do they want for themselves, their families, communities, the country, or even the world? The goal is to find something in our shared humanity, to connect on a deeper level so they start to open up and let down walls, and find something you both see eye-to-eye on. Know your audience and speak to what serves them. To effectively persuade someone to come around to your point of view starts with recognizing the root of the disagreement and trying to overcome it before trying to change the person’s mind, understanding both the logic and the emotion that’s driving their decision making.4

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