Training doctors to talk about vaccines

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

December 4th, 2015

Editorial Team

‘Health professionals are powerful health advocates but need communication training if they are to talk about immunisation effectively. ’

“We know that the recommendation of doctors about vaccination is the most important thing in getting people to go ahead and get their children vaccinated,” says Professor John Parrish Sprowl, Professor of Communication Studies, Indian University-Purdue University.

“Most physicians are extremely well trained at being physicians,” he told Vaccines Today in a video interview. “ [But] their communication skills do not always match their medical skills.”

Professor Parrish-Sprowl is working with Professor Eugenijus Laurinaitis, University of Vilnius, to create a training programme that helps physicians to engage with patients on immunisation.

One of the key challenges in discussing vaccines is that the conversation is usually between a doctor and a healthy person – or the parent of a healthy child.

It may be easier to convince a sick patient that they need medication, surgery or a new diet than it is to encourage a healthy person to protect themselves against a disease they do not have – and may not have seen in years.

Professor Laurinaitis says that sick people visit doctors to seek help for a problem. But with vaccination, the roles are reversed. “It is essential that healthcare providers change their attitude from communicating a message to the patient to a conversation about solving a mutual problem,” he says.

“The provider has to accept that they are on equal terms with their partner in the conversation and that their arguments are of the same value,” says Professor Laurinaitis.

He describes this as a “paradigmatic shift” and says doctors need training to change their mind-set when it comes to discussing immunisation. “We have to help professionals to accept this shift; to change their position from one of power to one of partnership,” he says.

Evidence showing how doctors can best discuss immunisation is a little thin but the body of research is growing fast. For example, Dr Douglas Opel at Seattle Children’s Hospital says that doctors should begin vaccine conversations with a recommendation rather than an open question.

Relatively small changes in approach could be the key to better vaccine uptake, helping to stem the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases.

While the study of vaccine communication is still emerging, it seems certain that doctors will retain a starring role in immunisation advocacy – even if the tone of the conversation changes as new research emerges.


  1. Jessica Miller

    Jessica Miller

    January 24th, 2016

    I wrote my Master’s thesis on how varying communication strategies could be employed to engage different population groups to increase vaccination uptake, using the MMR autism controversy as an example, so it was particularly interesting for me to come across this platform.

    Part of my thesis touched upon the importance of a paradigm shift in the way healthcare professionals communicate vaccination. This could also be compared to the differing models of science communication – making a shift from telling someone what to do, to a dialogue. Additionally, in this information-rich era, where a multitude of ideas are at the click of a button, parents may come to appointments with strong opinions, stemming from things they have read or heard. This places greater importance on doctors discussing concerns about vaccination ‘on a level playing field’. Relevant community organisations and parenting groups, could also provide ‘safe spaces’ for group discussion with a healthcare professional present to provide recommendations and answer questions.

  2. Gary Finnegan

    Gary Finnegan

    February 1st, 2016

    Thanks for your post Jessica. Very interesting. What field do you work in now, may I ask? Hope you are still active in this area