How to talk with someone about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

With less than half of the United States fully vaccinated, you’ve probably wondered, “How should I talk to hesitant friends or family members about getting their COVID-19 shot?” Now, Stanford Medicine researchers specializing in health education have developed guidelines to help facilitate those awkward conversations.

“We’re trying to find common ground between different audiences to create guidelines that catalyze conversation about vaccination, not stifle it,” said Rachelle Mirkin, MPH, administrative director of health education, engagement and promotion at Stanford Health Care, who led the effort.

Moreover, these conversations either aren’t happening or they’re often ineffectively divisive, said Emilie Wagner, a healthcare strategy consultant who teaches at Stanford and who helped Mirkin and Nicole Altamirano, program manager for digital experience strategy, conduct the research. “There’s so much tension that people don’t want to risk a relationship. Yet, if it goes unaddressed, the tension just naturally mounts.”

The team wanted to understand why some people are reluctant to adopt COVID-19 prevention measures — including wearing a mask, social distancing and being vaccinated — and wanted to learn how to facilitate better communication with vaccine-hesitant individuals.

So far, they’ve discovered that traditional messages — such as the need to protect yourself and others or the enticement of getting kids back to school — don’t move the needle when it comes to persuading hesitant people to get a vaccine. Having a personal, empathetic conversation with people works better than presenting statistics and facts at them.

Needing a new approach

Mirkin and her team conducted an extensive literature review of vaccine hesitancy, using the information to create a list of 25 talking points they thought might sway those who are vaccine hesitant.

They then interviewed health care providers, hospital administrators and a small group of older white adults who were vaccine hesitant, but only regarding COVID-19. Somewhat surprisingly, these participants weren’t generally against vaccines, said Mirkin. Some had already received a two-part shingles vaccines, which can have significant side effects including fatigue, muscle pain and fever.

But when it came to COVID-19 shots, the traditional messaging did not resonate with the target group, said Wagner.

“They had a response for everything,” she said. “They thought the vaccine wasn’t a means for returning to normal. It wasn’t their responsibility to keep others safe. And they believed the risk of the vaccine outweighed the risk of COVID.”

So, the team switched from drawing on knowledge to drawing on empathy. Instead of focusing primarily on facts, they suggest having open-ended conversations that validate feelings and personalize the vaccine experience. And they recommend talking about how everyday life is easier once you’re vaccinated.

According to Wagner, they found that the appeal of hassle-free travel can motivate this group to get vaccinated. Visiting with grandkids can also nudge older adults into getting their shots. But generally, it takes a combination of incentives. The researchers also realized that many short conversations over time are needed. “It takes persistence, so talking with friends and family members can be more effective than a single conversation with a provider,” Wagner said.  

To share their approach more broadly, the researchers translated their new strategy into two practical guides — one for health care providers and one for friends and family — and are now disseminating them.

“We need to make space for these discussions,” Mirkin explained. “The more non-judgmental conversations you have with an individual, the more likely they are to protect themselves and others from COVID.”

Encouraging vaccine acceptance, one group at a time

Mirkin’s team is also trying to understand the drivers of vaccine acceptance in two other groups: Latino Spanish speakers and Pacific Islanders. They are working with community partners to create social media campaigns, including Facebook ads, Twitter and Instagram posts, as well as public service announcements. So far, the Latino public service announcements have been picked up by Telemundo, a Spanish-language television network, and the Facebook ads have more than 3 million hits.

Based on initial data, the main issue for Latinos and Pacific Islanders is access to personal protective equipment — such as masks — COVID-19 testing and vaccines, Mirkin said. “In general, the concerns are very logistics-based, whereas the Caucasian hesitant group is philosophically- and identity-based,” she said.

Vaccine acceptance is often complicated by a larger erosion of trust of science and health care systems that have failed many people, especially those of color, said Mirkin. “As an academic medical center, we have to understand what’s going on to begin to reshape the conditions to help rebuild trust.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Photo by Mattia Ascenzo  

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer, editor and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.