Addressing vaccine hesitancy with patients


Building trust

Reminding patients, friends or family members that their health and well-being means a lot to you can also be a strategy to keeping the conversation open and friendly. Sharing stories as hospitalists caring for many critically ill COVID patients or patients who died alone due to COVID-19, and the trauma you experienced as a health care provider feeling paralyzed by the limitations of modern medicine against the deadly virus, will only serve to humanize you in such an interaction.

Building trust will also increase vaccine willingness. This will require a concerted effort by scientists, doctors, and health care systems to engage with community leaders and members. To address hesitancy, the people we serve have to hear those local, personal, and relatable stories about vaccinations, and how it benefits not just themselves, but others around them in their community. As part of the #VaxUp campaign in Virginia, community and physician leaders shared their stories of hesitancy and motivation surrounding the vaccine. These are real people in the community discussing why getting vaccinated is so important and what helped them make an informed decision. I discussed my own hesitancy and concerns and also tackled a few vaccine myths.

As vaccinated health care workers or community leaders, you are living proof of the benefits of getting the COVID vaccine. Focus on the positives but also be honest. If your second shot gave you fevers, chills, or myalgias, then admit it and share how you overcame these expected reactions. Refocus on the safety of the vaccine and the fact that it is freely available to all people. Maybe the person you are speaking with doesn’t know where or how to get an appointment to get vaccinated. Help them find the nearest place to get an appointment and identify barriers they may have in transportation, child, or senior care to leave home safely to get vaccinated, or physical conditions that are preventing them from receiving the vaccine. Share that being vaccinated protects you from contracting the virus and spreading it to loved ones. Focus on how a fully vaccinated community and country can open up opportunities to heal and connect as a society, spend time with family/friends in another county or state, hold a newborn grandchild, or even travel outside the U.S.

There is no guarantee that you will be able to persuade someone to get vaccinated. It’s possible the outcome of your conversation will not result in the other person changing their mind in that moment. That doesn’t mean that you failed, because you started the dialogue and planted the seed. If you are a vaccinated health care provider, your words have influence and power, and we are obliged by our positions to have responsibility for the health of our communities. Don’t be discouraged, as it is through caring, compassionate, respectful, and empathic conversations that your influence will make the most difference in these relationships as you continue to advocate for all human life.

Dr. Williams is vice president of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Society of Hospital Medicine. She is a hospitalist at Sentara Careplex Hospital in Hampton, Va., where she also serves as vice president of the Medical Executive Committee.


1. World Health Organization. Report of the SAGE working group on vaccine hesitancy. Oct 2014.

2. Hsu JL. A brief history of vaccines: Smallpox to the present. S D Med. 2013;Spec no:33-7. PMID: 23444589.

3. Chiu A, Bever L. Are they experimental? Can they alter DNA? Experts tackle lingering coronavirus vaccine fears. The Washington Post. 2021 May 14.

4. Huang L. Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2020.


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