Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy With Patients

Pharmacists can work with their patients to address concerns about vaccinations.

Vaccine hesitancy is not a new issue facing the health care industry, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has quickly become a more urgent concern.

Vaccinations are one of the most successful public health measures in history, making the growing perception of fear, lack of safety, and serious adverse events extremely alarming. The public’s unwillingness to get vaccinated is quickly becoming a threat to vaccine success in general. We know herd immunity is a large piece of preventing disease outbreaks and epidemics/pandemics. Vaccines have shown early promise in preventing the spread and reducing the mortality of COVID-19 infections but will likely only allow a full return to “normal” if a high percentage of the population is vaccinated. Although solving this issue will likely require a collaborative effort among all members of the health care community, pharmacists are well-positioned to help overcome this barrier with their patients. Even when this pandemic is over, pharmacists can be instrumental in overcoming similar hesitancy with other vaccines such as influenza, shingles, and pneumonia. As pharmacists are arguably the most accessible and visible health care professionals in our system, they have the unique opportunity to contribute significantly to public health in this way.

First, pharmacists need to recognize and identify the different types and causes of vaccine hesitancy:

  • Fear: Fear is one of the most common sources, whether it is fear of needles, adverse effects (AEs), feeling ill or “getting sick” from vaccination, or long-term complications resulting from a vaccine.
  • Social pressure: Hesitancy may also result from exposure to the growing number of anti-vaccination groups or individuals and misinformation that exists regarding vaccination.
  • Cost: Out-of-pocket costs, copays, and general insurance coverage concerns are another source of hesitancy among patients.
  • Lack of education: Many patients are unaware of which vaccinations they should be receiving and on what schedule, where they can receive vaccines, and the benefit of vaccines on their health and the health of others.

There is a lot of work to be done, much of which can be directly impacted by pharmacists. First and foremost, pharmacists can utilize the relationships they have already built with their patients. These relationships have likely created a level of trust with patients that may allow for more open-mindedness in conversations around vaccination. If pharmacists capitalize on this trust when conversing with patients, they will probably have significant success in getting through to patients who may be hesitant. Pharmacists can especially make an impact through education. Pharmacists are uniquely knowledgeable about pharmaceutical products such as vaccines and can clearly explain the benefits of vaccination and answer any specific patient questions.

In addition, pharmacists can employ some simpler tactics in their day-to-day to encourage vaccinations. Simple tasks such as ensuring up-to-date insurance information for all patients and timely offerings of vaccines to patients as they become eligible can make a big difference. Pharmacists are the best in the industry at dealing with insurance claims, especially through the pharmacy benefit that often covers vaccines. If pharmacists can use these skills to make vaccinations accessible or very affordable for their patients, it will remove cost as a potential barrier. Pharmacists can also offer vaccinations to patients early when they become eligible, as they generally see patients more frequently than other health care providers. Making vaccinations fun can also be impactful for many patients, especially the younger generations. Pharmacists can do simple things like promoting vaccinations on social media to create photo opportunities for patients and handing out stickers to those who are vaccinated in the pharmacy to let them share with the public. This encourages some patients to get vaccinated directly and may also make a bigger splash with those patients’ friends and followers online. Lastly, for those patients who are simply fearful of needles or uncomfortable with the actual act of getting a vaccine, creating a pleasant and comfortable environment might make a difference. Pharmacists at all types of practice sites can ensure they have a comfortable and safe vaccination area to welcome patients and use personal connections and trust to quell their fears.

A pharmacist’s role in overcoming vaccine hesitancy in our communities is vital, and public health greatly relies on it. We’ve seen over the past year how effective pharmacists can be in contributing to public health in the eye of a global pandemic.Pharmacists’ success with the national COVID-19 vaccination effort has been extraordinary and will be even more impactful if we work towards improving the public’s hesitancy. Common issues patients may have specifically with the COVID-19 vaccines include its accelerated approval timeline, the unknown nature of long-term effects related to the novel mechanism of action, having already been infected and possessing antibodies, and in some cases, feeling like they are healthy enough to not need to be vaccinated. If pharmacists can employ the previously discussed tactics surrounding vaccine hesitancy, specifically to the COVID-19 vaccines, there is no doubt our country will be in a much better position with this pandemic very soon.

About the Author

Molly Gombos earned her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and her Master of Pharmacy Business Administration (MPBA) in 2021 from the University of Pittsburgh, a 12-month, executive-style graduate education program designed for working professionals striving to be tomorrow’s leaders in the business of medicines. Molly has spent the last 7 years working in community pharmacy, initially as a pharmacist and pharmacy manager and most recently working in pharmacy operations. Her current role is working in the patient safety and clinical space with a focus on clinical decision support.