How to talk to patients reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine


Family physician Mitchell A. Kaminski, MD, MBA, was still awash in feelings of joy and relief at recently being vaccinated against COVID-19 when a patient’s comments stopped him cold. The patient, a middle-aged man with several comorbidities had just declined the pneumonia vaccine – and he added, without prompting, that he wouldn’t be getting the COVID vaccine either. This patient had heard getting vaccinated could kill him.

Mitchell A. Kaminski, MD, MBA

Dr. Mitchell A. Kaminski

Dr. Kaminski countered with medical facts, including that the very rare side effects hadn’t killed anyone in the United States but COVID was killing thousands of people every day. “Well then, I’ll just risk getting COVID,” Dr. Kaminski recalled the patient saying. Conversation over.

That experience caused Dr. Kaminski, who is program director for population health at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, to rethink the way he talks to patients who are uncertain or skeptical about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Now, if he saw that patient who seemed fearful of dying from a vaccination, Dr. Kaminski said he would be more curious.

Instead of outright contradicting the beliefs of a patient who is reluctant to get vaccinated, Dr. Kaminski now gently asks about the reasons for their discomfort and offers information about the vaccines. But mostly, he listens.

A patient receives a vaccine ©Sean Warren/iStockphoto.com

Conversations between physicians and patients about the risks that come with getting a COVID-19 vaccine are becoming more common in general as eligibility for immunizations expands. Physicians are using a variety of methods to communicate about the safety and importance of getting vaccinated that they think will lead to more of their patients getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

About 80% of Americans say that they are most likely to turn to doctors, nurses and other health professionals for help in deciding whether to get the COVID vaccine, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Getting beyond the distrust

While patients often feel a strong connection with their health providers, distrust in the medical establishment still exists, especially among some populations. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that a third of Black respondents are taking a “wait-and-see” approach, while 23% said they will get it only if it’s required – or not at all.

Krys Foster, MD

Dr. Krys Foster

Distrust persists from historical racist events in medicine, such as the infamous Tuskegee experiments in which treatment was withheld from Black men with syphilis. But physicians shouldn’t assume that all Black patients have the same reasons for vaccine hesitancy, said Krys Foster, MD, MPH, a family physician at Thomas Jefferson University.

“In my experience caring for patients who are uncertain or have concerns about receiving the vaccine, I’ve learned that many are just seeking more information, or even my approval to say that it is safe to proceed given their medical history,” she said.

Sources such as the COVID Racial Data Tracker have found that Black Americans have a higher COVID death rate than other racial or ethnic groups, making vaccination even more vital. Yet fear of the vaccine could be triggered by misinformation that can be found in various places online, Dr. Foster said.

To encourage people to get vaccinated and dispel false information, Dr. Foster takes time to discuss how safe it is to get a COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccines’ side effects, then quickly pivots to discussing how to get vaccinated.

It can be difficult for some people to find appointments or access testing sites. The failure to get the vaccine shouldn’t automatically be attributed to “hesitancy,” she said. “The onus is on the medical community to help fix the health injustices inflicted on communities of color by providing equitable information and access and stop placing blame on them for having the ‘wrong’ vaccine attitude.”


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