How to Address Vaccine Hesitancy in Your Community

In the fight against the pandemic that has taken the lives of over 600,000 Americans, COVID-19 vaccines have offered safety, protection, and a promise to return to normalcy. As of July 2021, more than 180 million people have received their vaccination, the majority of which are fully vaccinated. This feat, however, would not have been possible without the hundreds of thousands of community pharmacies who stepped up to the plate and took on the challenge of vaccinating the nation — especially when chains fell short. From providing testing to offering supportive care to administering vaccines, community pharmacies have been on the frontlines against COVID-19, meeting patients’ needs with enthusiasm and innovation.

Halfway into the year, though, pharmacies are faced with a new challenge: closing the vaccination gap. Although millions of Americans have been vaccinated, just as many have not — creating an ongoing risk for individuals, families, and entire communities. In fact, the CDC reports that an estimated 45% of adults are unvaccinated.

The Issue of Vaccine Hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy is a complex problem that requires specific solutions. People are choosing to forgo the vaccine for a variety of reasons (and sometimes multiple reasons), but researchers speculate that it may be one of the following:

  1. Distrust of the vaccine and its ingredients 
  2. Distrust of the institutions that push the vaccine
  3. Vaccine side effects
  4. Vaccine long-term effects
  5. COVID-19 isn’t seen as a threat

Not only do these misconceptions prevent the country’s recovery from COVID-19, but they negatively affect the future of healthcare, as fewer people seek out treatment and are forced to face the consequences. In order to return to “life as normal,” and more importantly, to protect communities — throughout COVID-19 and beyond — pharmacies must step up yet again and close the vaccination gap.

Community Pharmacy’s Role

As the most accessible healthcare provider, community pharmacists and technicians have a unique opportunity to address vaccine hesitancy. While patients only visit their primary care providers and specialists a few times a year, they visit their community pharmacy much more often — even on a regular basis. Seeing patients more often gives you a better chance to start a conversation, hear patients’ hesitations, and address them in a timely manner.

And, if you have maintained a relationship with your patients — knowing more than just their prescription history or the services they see you for — they will be much more receptive to the input you offer. With this “trust factor” in place, you can educate patients, dispel misinformation, and give them greater peace of mind about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Community pharmacy’s greatest advantage is personal connection, and when it comes to vaccine hesitancy, a connection can make all the difference.

How to Address Hesitancy

The best way to address hesitancy is one of the simplest: with understanding, empathy, and education. When engaging in conversations with your patients, go about the process in a strategic way — not just working to “convince” more patients to get the vaccine, but helping them to feel comfortable doing so on their own accord. Use these best practices to help you along the way:

  • Listen to patients’ concerns — COVID-19 has brought about uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. As you talk with patients, be aware of this apprehension — which not only relates to the vaccine, but to life and to the future in general. Ask patients about their specific concerns and hear them out: are they worried about the vaccine’s side effects? The long-term effects? The chance for transmission? Before you can address any hesitations, you have to know what they are; so take the time to sit back and listen. In your conversations, maintain eye contact, use verbal and non-verbal cues, and use affirming language to let patients know you’re listening.
  • Understand their doubts — As you listen, you should also work to fully understand patients’ specific concerns and the fears that underlie them. Generally, patients do not refuse the vaccine to be stubborn or defiant, but to prevent some sort of perceived harm. Realizing that patients operate from a place of self-preservation will help you understand their doubts and treat them with more empathy. Not only will this help you address their hesitancies, but it will set a strong patient-provider relationship for you later on.
  • Provide education — The most powerful tool you can use to address vaccine hesitancy is education. Many patients get their information about the vaccine from non-reputable sources, like the local news, social media, or their own inner circles — where criticism is the loudest. Providing patients with science-backed data from trusted sources can help them to see that the vaccine is both safe and effective. Consult the list below this post for the best educational resources.
  • Dispel misinformation — In addition to giving patients new information about the vaccine, you are tasked with correcting the misinformation they already have. Whether it be a common concern or an outlandish conspiracy, misinformation is everywhere, and it can significantly impact your patients’ trust in the vaccine. When talking to patients, be prepared with the necessary knowledge, facts, and statistics to fight misinformation.
  • Appeal to emotions — While education is crucial to closing the vaccination gap, education alone isn’t enough. Facts, logic, and reasoning only go so far, so try appealing to your patients’ emotions as well. As you do so, focus on the fact that fighting COVID-19 is a team effort, and that in order to protect our communities — particularly those that are the most vulnerable, like older adults and immunocompromised people — all people should get vaccinated. This tactic is particularly useful for younger patients who, for example, may not get the vaccine for themselves but would for their grandparents. After all, fighting vaccine hesitancy isn’t about improving numbers, but protecting people.

Finishing the Mission

For the past year and a half, community pharmacies have set the precedent for comprehensive COVID-19 care. From the initial stages of the pandemic to today, they have offered an example of how to treat patients with concern and compassion.

The job isn’t over yet, though. As pharmacies work to bring the pandemic to a close, they must capitalize on the thing that sets them apart — personalized, value-based care — to close the vaccination gap and keep their communities safe.

Educational Resources

CDC - Vaccine Recipient Education

CDC - Answering Patients’ Questions About COVID-19 Vaccine and Vaccination

CDC - How to Talk to Your Patients About COVID-19 Vaccination

WHO - Vaccines Explained series

Johns Hopkins -  COVID-19 Vaccines: Myth Versus Fact

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