Helping health professionals to become vaccine champions

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

June 12th, 2024

Editorial Team

‘Doctors, nurses and pharmacists are trusted sources of information on immunisation. How can they be equipped to address patients’ questions and concerns about vaccines?’

In survey after survey, people say they trust their health professionals. This trust is neither absolute nor unconditional, and it cannot be taken for granted. 

Nonetheless, we put more trust in what our doctor says about health than we do in politicians, journalists or celebrities. And it’s not just doctors. Pharmacists and nurses remain top of the league in terms of public confidence.

That is why vaccine policy experts are keen to mobilise healthcare professionals to become active vaccination advocates. The challenge is that the same can be said of other health priorities. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, menopause, mental health – everyone wants GPs, community pharmacists and public health nurses to do more. And yet, they remain time poor and under-resourced. 

So, how can health workers be inspired to engage with patients on immunisation and what supports do they need if they are to be effective?

This is one of the questions put to Dr Angelos Kassianos, a health psychologist at Cyprus University of Technology in the latest podcast from the Coalition for Life-Course Immunisation (CLCI). 

Dr Kassianos acknowledges the unique status health workers have in the health system – and the exceptionally influential role they can play in promoting healthy behaviours. But healthcare professionals are also individuals with their own concerns, fears and beliefs; and some of them know little about vaccines or how to communicate about them. 

‘Healthcare professionals have three vital roles: they administer vaccines; they can recommend vaccines, and they also have a national role in [publicly] encouraging vaccination,’ Dr Kassianos said. ‘[In addition,] healthcare workers should accept recommended vaccines for themselves, but there can be barriers to uptake for them too.’

A Doctor Talking the Patient
Consultation time is short, so doctors need easily accessible, reliable information on vaccines.

In the limited time available, a GP or pharmacist may hesitate to embark on a conversation about vaccines, particularly if they are not confident in their ability to answer difficult questions on side effects, for example. 

‘We did a survey to understand whether health professionals feel they are well equipped to promote vaccination. Their answer was: not so much,’ he said. ‘They need access to up-to-date, evidence-based information, and they need the time and skills to communicate with patients.’

Providing more information on vaccines in medical school curricula, and in continuing medical education, can help. But it is only part of the solution, Dr Kassianos argued. ‘We need to build general skills that foster a culture of shared decision-making,’ he said. ‘If the health professional is equipped to understand the perspective of their patients, and can adapt to meet their needs, they can make a lasting difference.’ 

This person-centeredness reflects a modern approach to healthcare delivery, but attitudes vary across Europe and between generations. However, a growing proportion of the population expects their doctor to listen rather than simply tell them what to do.

‘The first step for healthcare workers is to initiate a conversation and give patients room to express their concerns, before responding with specific information,’ he said. ‘If you provide generic, vague facts, the chances of success will be much lower.’

Similarly, Dr Kassianos suggests that health professionals should consider patients’ past vaccination record as this may shape their future actions. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all fact sheet, a doctor or nurse can tailor their approach to meet the needs of the person in front of them. 

Watch the full podcast here. For more podcasts from the Coalition for Life-Course Immunisation, subscribe to their channel

Dr Kassianos works on the EU-funded Co-Operator project, among others. Co-operator is mapping the needs of health stakeholders and will develop training to improve their capacity to engage with patients about immunisation.