Here’s how doctors can help combat vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate concern — one that’s being amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between ongoing updates about variants and vaccine efficacy, it’s no wonder people have questions. Add in unreliable sources of information and we have a breeding ground for inaccuracies — or, at the very least, confusion.

The role doctors play in combating vaccine hesitancy is significant. Sixty per cent of vaccine-hesitant respondents were more likely to get immunized if a family doctor endorsed and administered their shot, a recent survey by the Ontario College of Family Physicians found.

But what does it actually mean to be vaccine hesitant, and how can primary care doctors combat vaccine hesitancy?

Think Research talked to Dr. Peter Lin, a primary care physician, frequent speaker on vaccine hesitancy and featured clinician in MDBriefCase’s Straight talk on COVID-19 video series, to find out more. This conversation is part of Think’s efforts to build vaccine confidence.

Can you explain the difference between someone who is against vaccines and someone who might be skeptical or experiencing some hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine?

“There is a spectrum of people. There’s people on one side that will say, ‘I’ll take any vaccine; I want to be the first in line,’ and then there’s the other extreme, who say, ‘No, I’m not going to take it ever because I don’t believe in it.’

Then, we have a large group of people in the middle, and that large group of people in the middle are confused. We’ve been telling people normally a vaccine takes 10 years to build. Now, suddenly in a year, we’ve got a whole bunch of them. So of course people are going to be skeptical. I think those people are sitting there going, ‘I’m not really sure about the science, I have a lot of questions.’ Unfortunately, those questions are mistakenly interpreted as those people don’t want to get vaccinated, or, they don’t believe in vaccines.”

That makes sense. Is that why you’re a big proponent of having primary care physicians address vaccine hesitancy with their patients?

“Patients often turn to primary care doctors when they have questions — a trusted source. And with COVID-19 vaccines, there are a lot of questions. If we, the primary care doctors, don’t provide the answers, then people will find the answers elsewhere — and the answers may not always be right; just because it is on the internet does not mean it is correct. So when people have questions, we should be the ones answering their questions. And if there is no data [on a certain subject or aspect], then we should tell them that this is an area that needs to be studied. I think the key is to not brush off questions because if we do, people will go look elsewhere.”

How can doctors address vaccine hesitancy with their patients? What have you found to be most effective?

“It depends on the patient. Many patients, as soon as we tell them, ‘Millions of people have had this shot’ they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I’m good then.’ Some people might want a bit of the science as to how the vaccine works. Many people want to know the side effects, because that is what they are afraid of. Others are worried about allergic reactions and whether their existing allergies will make them have an allergic reaction. So providing information will help settle their concerns.

The good news is that in the U.S., out of nearly 1.9 million shots, 21 people had anaphylaxis — the bad kind of allergic reaction — and all of them were treated and got better. So that is very reassuring for patients to hear.”

In other words, getting the real information about vaccine safety and efficacy will help address concerns.

“I think with anything in life, getting the real facts is very important. There are a lot of opinions from a lot of different people out there, so that’s why it’s important to get the real information instead of just reading whatever somebody has put on the internet. Turn to your trusted sources and get the facts. Also now, with millions of people having had the vaccine, our confidence is even stronger.”