For the past 18 months, as chair of the COVID-19 Task Force at Envision Healthcare — a national medical group that cares for 32 million patients a year — I have been focused on identifying strategies to protect the public. I have witnessed this pandemic through many lenses and spoken with friends, family members and people in my community about their perceptions of COVID-19. What has become increasingly clear is that one of the greatest threats to the health of our patients and our communities is a growing vaccine disinformation campaign. Despite the medical achievement of highly effective vaccines, the true benefits of widespread vaccination will not be realized until everyone trusts the science.
The COVID-19 vaccine has been somewhat of a medical miracle, protecting more than 95 percent of the U.S. population that has been fully vaccinated against the deadly virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But more than eight months after the vaccine has been widely available in the U.S., and with more than 200 million doses given, the CDC reports that less than 60 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. “Does the vaccine cause infertility? Does COVID-19 affect children? Do I need the vaccine if I previously had COVID-19?” These are all questions I hear regularly. Even members of my own family have shared their concerns with me about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The spread of disinformation is capitalizing on those who are seeking an alternative reality. The disinformation is reinforced with prominent voices and fake social media accounts, reiterating the recipient’s perception that the information is credible. That disinformation is then shared within their own spheres of influence and deemed credible. And disinformation continues to spread. Suddenly, once reputable sources are poisoned with rapidly spreading inaccurate information, much like how a virus replicates and spreads throughout the body.
Sadly, large segments of the population believe the vaccine is either unsafe, a conspiracy or a tracking device. In fact, more than half of Americans are not sure whether or not to believe some of the false claims and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new survey from a coalition of university-based research. Conversely, 70 percent of those who reported not believing any misleading statements received the vaccine. Believing disinformation has real-world health outcomes and health equity implications — it is associated with lower vaccination rates, and there’s a direct relationship between low vaccination rates and high rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death.
So how do we connect with our vaccine-hesitant friends and family members to have productive conversations about getting the COVID-19 vaccine despite quick-spreading disinformation? Here are a few things I have learned researching healthcare decision-making and through my 17 years of experience as an emergency physician:
Bust vaccine myths with science (and psychology and anthropology)
It may seem obvious, but this requires keen observation and a tailored approach for each person. For years, many believed improving health literacy would improve overall health outcomes. But in fact, multiple fields of study from psychology to anthropology demonstrate the drivers of decision-making are complex and not solely related to the receipt of information. We as humans receive information not as blank slates, but as complex individuals with lived experiences that frame our opinions. You can imagine then, for example, a physician with two decades in practice may have less influence than an Instagram influencer, celebrity or local community leader.
We need to be more strategic, identifying the drivers of decision-making and capitalizing on the tactics to accomplish the goal of influencing individuals’ decisions to improve their health. By talking with loved ones about their questions and concerns, validating their fears and providing examples and data that appeals to them as an individual, not as part of “the problem,” we can better dispel vaccine fallacies.
At the end of the day, we’re all human and wish to be treated as such. For some, the decision to get vaccinated is highly stressful, whether it be due to culture, religious or medical reasons, family dynamics or other circumstances. For some people, fear is the driving factor behind vaccine hesitancy. It is for this reason that we must approach the vaccine hesitant people in our lives with empathy and compassion. In such uncertain times, judgement and shame have no place — and certainly have no benefit — when speaking with others about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.
As the CDC recommends: Be compassionate, show empathy and be genuinely curious about the reasons why the patient feels the way they do. A productive conversation starts with courtesy and respect and ends with the person feeling comfortable with you, the information you provide and the decision they make about their care.
As the deadly Delta variant spikes COVID-19 cases across the United States, it’s clear the pandemic is far from over. With this in mind, let us use the objectivity of science and the humanity of empathy to encourage those who are hesitant to get vaccinated.
Dr. Adam Brown is Chief Impact Officer and COVID-19 Task Force Chair at Envision Healthcare. He earned his medical degree from East Carolina University.