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Vaccine adherence hinges on improving science communication


I’m not getting the vaccine. Nobody knows the long-term effects, and I heard that people are getting clots.”

We were screening patients at a low-cost clinic in Philadelphia for concerns surrounding social determinants of health. During one patient visit, in addition to concerns including housing, medication affordability, and transportation, we found that she had not received the COVID-19 vaccine, and we asked if she was interested in being immunized.

News reports have endlessly covered antivaccine sentiment, but this personal encounter hit home. From simple face masks to groundbreaking vaccines, we failed as physicians to encourage widespread uptake of health-protective measures despite strong scientific backing.

Large swaths of the public deny these tools’ importance or question their safety. This is ultimately rooted in the inability of community leaders and health care professionals to communicate with the public.

Science communication is inherently difficult. Scientists use complex language, and it is hard to evaluate the lay public’s baseline knowledge. Moreover, we are trained to speak with qualifications, encourage doubt, and accept change and evolution of fact. These qualities contrast the definitive messaging necessary in public settings. COVID-19 highlighted these gaps, where regardless of novel scientific solutions, poor communication led to a resistance to accept the tested scientific solution, which ultimately was the rate-limiting factor for overcoming the virus.

As directors of Physician Executive Leadership, an organization that trains future physicians at Thomas Jefferson University to tackle emerging health care issues, we hosted Paul Offit, MD, a national media figure and vaccine advocate. Dr. Offit shared his personal growth during the pandemic, from being abruptly thrown into the spotlight to eventually honing his communication skills. Dr. Offit discussed the challenges of sharing medical knowledge with laypeople and adaptations that are necessary. We found this transformative, realizing the importance of science communication training early in medical education.

Emphasizing the humanities and building soft skills will improve outcomes and benefit broader society by producing physician-leaders in public health and policy. We hope to improve our own communication skills and work in medical education to incorporate similar training into education paradigms for future students.

As seen in our patient interaction, strong science alone will not drive patient adherence; instead, we must work at personal and system levels to induce change. Physicians have a unique opportunity to generate trust and guide evidence-based policy. We must communicate, whether one-on-one with patients, or to millions of viewers via media or policymaker settings. We hope to not only be doctors, but to be advocates, leaders, and trusted advisers for the public.

Mr. Kieran and Mr. Shah are second-year medical students at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia. Neither disclosed any relevant conflicts of interest. A version of this article first appeared on

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