Science Communication Tips for Pharmacists

Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics November 2022
Volume 166
Issue 11

Pharmacists can help educate patients as they try to analyze scientific information shared via the news or social media.

Follow news coverage about scientific discoveries to prepare for the questions you’re likely to get from patients: That’s the first piece of advice on communicating with patients about scientific information, says Cherokee Layson-Wolf, PharmD, BCACP, FAPhA, professor of practice, sciences, and health outcomes research at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Patients have a lot of information coming at them from watching television and engaging with social media. The challenge? According to Layson-Wolf, patients often don’t know how to analyze the news they are watching or the stories their friends and family are sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Layson-Wolf is often asked about the effectiveness of influenza shots, for example. The CDC will typically determine that the effectiveness of influenza vaccines in a given year is between 30% and 40%, she said. When patients learn these statistics, they often weigh the possible adverse effects of a vaccine with the benefit of getting a vaccine. She explains to patients that the number of reported influenza cases is likely inaccurate because many people who were deemed to have the disease were never actually tested.

As a result, she advises patients to always get the influenza vaccine. “It absolutely, truly makes sense that you get [it] because the flu strains change every year,” she said. “The flu [vaccine] will have a different effectiveness based on the flu strain that’s circulating that year.”

She stressed that there can also be a cumulative effect when patients get the influenza vaccine each year, which means they have additional protection. Layson-Wolf’s advice to patients is simple: “Just keep it in your routine.”

Here are 3 more tips to help pharmacists become more effective scientific communicators:

1. Ask the patient what they’re concerned about.

“What are some of the questions you have?” That’s the question Layson-Wolf uses to understand why a patient doesn’t want to get an influenza vaccine, for example. Don’t assume, she said, that a patient is hesitant because of the effectiveness rate.

“Even if the concern, in your mind, isn’t logical, it’s still so important to convey yourself as a trustworthy resource,” said Layson-Wolf. “It takes a long time to build that kind of a relationship. A lot of the success of being able to [explain] some of the scientific information is being able to [be] somebody [the patient trusts].”

Each patient has a different background and a different level of health literacy. As a result, the pharmacist has to “level-set to see where [the patient] is coming from,” said Layson-Wolf.

Questions about the HPV vaccine and the potential impact on teenagers’ sexual activity are also common, according to Layson-Wolf. Here’s how she responds: “This is one of the first vaccines we’ve got that prevents cancer. And if you had that chance to prevent cancer for your kid down the road, wouldn’t you take that chance?”

2. Address misinformation while validating concerns.

Questions about medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder are common among patients and their family members, said Anita Jacobson, PharmD, a clinical professor at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy. “A lot of times what we see is patients or caregivers come in with misinformation….People feel that their loved one has traded one addiction for another when they start taking methadone or buprenorphine for opioid use disorder. It’s a common thing.”

Jacobson advises pharmacists to validate the patient or family member’s concern using the principles of motivational interviewing. She suggested responding with: “This is something we hear from a lot of people, and it makes sense. The person that you are referring to was previously using opioids and now they’ve transitioned over to another opioid. Would it be OK if I take a few minutes to talk about how methadone and buprenorphine are different from opioids like heroin and synthetic fentanyl that are now in the drug supply?”

She stressed that it is important to ask patients for permission. “If we just launch into our explanation and blow past that first step of validating that person’s concerns and asking permission to give them information, it really causes them to lose face and dig deeper into their trench,” said Jacobson. “They feel challenged [and] they don’t feel heard. People really do need to feel heard by their health care provider.”

Once the pharmacist has permission, they can explain the difference between an addiction and physical dependence. With addiction, an individual’s thoughts are consumed by their next dose and they exhibit aberrant behaviors, whereas physical dependence is experienced by a patient who takes methadone or buprenorphine, she explains.

“Physical dependence just means that your body needs that drug in order to avoid going into withdrawal symptoms or develop[ing] cravings,” said Jacobson. She compared the experience to a patient who has diabetes and needs to take insulin.

“The key is to make the person feel that you are talking with them,” she added. “You are directly addressing their core concern and you’re hearing them. And you’re matching the information you’re providing with what their concern is.”

In addition, Jacobson said she often fields questions about research of which she’s not aware. Her way of handling these scenarios is to ask questions, such as about the sample size, for example.

What typically happens then is that the patient’s premise falls apart because they don’t know that information, she explains. But Jacobson counseled against losing the patient’s engagement, and suggested saying the following: “Well, it’s so tough, it’s really hard to know which studies are validated and well done [and] peer-reviewed.”

3. Offer to call the patient later if it’s busy.

If the line is long at the pharmacy counter, Layson-Wolf recommends that pharmacists use this response with patients: “Thank you for sharing that with me. Is it OK if I give you a call later when it’s a little bit slower so we can have some time to talk about this?”

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