COVID vaccine controversies: How can hospitalists help?


Protecting health care professionals

On July 26, the Society of Hospital Medicine joined 50 other health care organizations including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics in advocating for all health care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID, in order to protect the safety of all patients and residents of health care facilities.2

“As an organization, we support vaccinating health care workers, including hospitalists, to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and the increasingly dominant Delta variant,” said SHM’s chief executive officer Eric E. Howell, MD, MHM, in a prepared statement. “We aim to uphold the highest standards among hospitalists and other health care providers to help protect our fellow health care professionals, our patients, and our communities.”

To that end, Dr. Skandhan has started conversations with hospital staff who he knows are not vaccinated. “For some, we’re not able to have a civil conversation, but in most cases I can help to persuade people.” The reasons people give for not getting vaccinated are not based in science, he said. “I am worried about the safety of our hospitalists and staff nurses.” But unvaccinated frontline workers are also putting their patients at risk. “Can we say why they’re hesitating? Can we have an honest discourse? If we can’t do that with our colleagues, how can we blame the patients?”

Dr. Skandhan encourages hospitalists to start simply in their own hospitals, trying to influence their own departments and colleagues. “If you can convince one or two more every week, you can start a chain reaction. Have that conversation. Use your trust.” For some hospitalized patients, the vaccination conversation comes too late, after their infection, but even some of them might consider obtaining it down the road or trying to persuade family members to get vaccinated.

Adult hospitalists, however, may not have received training in how to effectively address vaccine fears and misconceptions among their patients, he said. Because the patients they see in the hospital are already very sick, they don’t get a lot of practice talking about vaccines except, perhaps, for the influenza vaccine.

Pediatric hospitalists have more experience with such conversations involving their patients’ parents, Dr. Skandhan said. “It comes more naturally to them. We need to learn quickly from them about how to talk about vaccines with our patients.”

Pediatric training and experience

Anika Kumar, MD, FHM, FAAP, a pediatric hospitalist at the Cleveland Clinic and the pediatric editor of The Hospitalist, agrees that pediatricians and pediatric hospitalists often have received more training in how to lead vaccination conversations. She often talks about vaccines with the parents of hospitalized children relative to chicken pox, measles, and other diseases of childhood.

Dr. Anika Kumar, Cleveland Clinic Children's

Dr. Anika Kumar

Pediatric hospitalists may also ask to administer the hepatitis B vaccine to newborn babies, along with other preventive treatments such as eye drops and vitamin K shots. “I often encourage the influenza vaccine prior to the patient’s hospital discharge, especially for kids with chronic conditions, asthma, diabetes, or premature birth. We talk about how the influenza vaccine isn’t perfect, but it helps to prevent more serious disease,” she said.

“A lot of vaccine hesitancy comes from misunderstandings about the role of vaccines,” she said. People forget that for years children have been getting vaccines before starting school. “Misinformation and opinions about vaccines have existed for decades. What’s new today is the abundance of sources for obtaining these opinions. My job is to inform families of scientific facts and to address their concerns.”

It has become more common recently for parents to say they don’t want their kids to get vaccinated, Dr. Kumar said. Another group is better described as vaccine hesitant and just needs more information. “I may not, by the time they leave the hospital, convince them to allow me to administer the vaccine. But in the discharge summary, I document that I had this conversation. I’ve done my due diligence and tried to start a larger dialogue. I say: ‘I encourage you to continue this discussion with the pediatrician you trust.’ I also communicate with the outpatient team,” she said.

“But it’s our responsibility, because we’re the ones seeing these patients, to do whatever we can to keep our patients from getting sick. A lot of challenging conversations we have with families are just trying to find out where they’re at with the issue – which can lead to productive dialogue.”

University of Louisville

Dr. Ariel Carpenter

Ariel Carpenter, MD, a 4th-year resident in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Louisville (Ky.), and a future pediatric hospitalist, agreed that her combined training in med-peds has been helpful preparation for the vaccine conversation. That training has included techniques of motivational interviewing. In pediatrics, she explained, the communication is a little softer. “I try to approach my patients in a family-centered way.”

Dr. Carpenter recently wrote a personal essay for Louisville Medicine magazine from the perspective of growing up homeschooled by a mother who didn’t believe in vaccines.3 As a teenager, she independently obtained the complete childhood vaccine series so that she could do medical shadowing and volunteering. In medical school she became a passionate vaccine advocate, eventually persuading her mother to change her mind on the subject in time for the COVID vaccine.

“There’s not one answer to the vaccination dilemma,” she said. “Different approaches are required because there are so many different reasons for it. Based on my own life experience, I try to approach patients where they are – not from a place of data and science. What worked in my own family, and works with my patients, is first to establish trust. If they trust you, they’re more likely to listen. Simply ask their worries and concerns,” Dr. Carpenter said.

“A lot of them haven’t had the opportunity before to sit down with a physician they trust and have their worries listened to. They don’t feel heard in our medical system. So I remind myself that I need to understand my patients first – before inserting myself into the conversation.”

Many patients she sees are in an information bubble, with a very different understanding of the issue than their doctors. “A lot of well-meaning people feel they are making the safer choice. Very few truly don’t care about protecting others. But they don’t feel the urgency about that and see the vaccine as the scarier option right now.”

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