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People Who Talk to Their Doctors Are More Likely to Get Vaccines

Woman wearing face mask sitting on examination table talking with female doctor holding an injection.

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that people who discussed vaccinations with their doctors were more likely to get vaccinated against H1N1.
  • Primary care physicians can play an important role in helping people come to the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19 due to trust.
  • In order to build trust with patients, it is important for physicians to practice good communication skills, including active listening.

When it comes to encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, good communication between doctors and patients may play a key role.

In a new study, researchers at Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that individuals who talk to their doctors are more likely to get vaccinated during a pandemic.

The team surveyed over 19,000 people across the United States to see if their relationship with their doctor played a role in informing their decision to get a vaccine during the "swine flu" (H1N1), the last pandemic in the U.S. prior to COVID-19.

The researchers found that communication between physicians and patients helped build trust, leading to more positive attitudes toward the H1N1 vaccine. That trust correlated with more jabs in arms. The study was published in the Health Communications journal in March.

So, physicians may be able to play a powerful role in helping to chip away at any remaining vaccine hesitancy.

Thomas Kenyon, MD, MPH, the chief health officer of Project HOPE and the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director of the Center for Global Health, tells Verywell that dispelling misinformation about COVID-19 plays a role in addressing vaccine hesitancy and other concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine.

"We are seeing vaccine hesitancy decline over time as more people receive the vaccine and skeptics are more assured by additional information and seeing that it is safe," Kenyon tells Verywell. "That said, a long history of racism, unethical research, and under-representation in clinical trials leaves communities of color in the U.S. and U.K. more skeptical of government COVID-19 vaccine programs."

The Essential Role of Primary Care Physicians

While people, particularly those with chronic health conditions, may have numerous specialists, primary care physicians can play an important role in building trust and relationships with patients.

"As family physicians, we're basically the frontline where patients are coming for information," Anita Gorwara, MD, family medicine physician and medical director of urgent care at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, tells Verywell. Gorwara says that family physicians can "help guide [patients] in making decisions, whether it be about vaccinations, which are very important right now, or other parts of their health."

When patients approach Gorwara with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, she tells them that they should get it. "We're not going to eradicate COVID by giving everybody the vaccine, but we're going to prevent patients from being hospitalized and getting severe disease," she says.

Being compassionate with patients who are vaccine-hesitant is especially important Gorwara says, as reports about the COVID-19 may exaggerate the risk of potential side effects from vaccines. "There's so much misinformation out there, and the media has done a good job of creating hesitancy in the population when they glorify side effects of vaccines," she says. "I think it's important for us to take a step back, see where the patients coming from, and then try to explain to them nicely and with compassion, why the vaccine is in their best interest."

Neil Brown, MD, the chief diagnosis officer at K Health, tells Verywell it's important that doctors uphold general good communication standards when speaking to patients in order to form a connection.

"A doctor who sits down in the room, makes good eye contact, and then lets the patient talk until they are done will rapidly build trust where a doctor who rushes into the room, talks over the patient and then stares at a computer and documents never will," he says. "Honesty is also critical, if the patient thinks the doctor is either guessing at something or not telling the truth in any way, trust is essentially lost."

What This Means For You

If you have questions or concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine, you should start a dialogue with your doctor. You can also check out Verywell's COVID-19 vaccine hub for more answers to questions about eligibility, side effects, and safety.

Trusted Physicians in BIPOC Communities

People may also trust primary care physicians more if they view them as being part of their community, Ramon Tallaj, MD, founder and chairman of SOMOS Community Care and member of the New York Vaccine Implementation Task Force, tells Verywell.

SOMOS Community Care works largely with Latinx and Asian immigrants in New York, who may face barriers when accessing health care. Tallaj himself is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. "They choose a primary care [doctor] because they believe in them, speak their own languages, there is a trust there," Tallaj says. "They come to talk to us to talk about the vaccine, we are the ones who tell them to get it."

Some additional measures may need to be taken to secure the trust of communities that may be wary of the push for vaccines, whether it is due to language barriers or systemic racism in medicine.

As Tallaj shared, immigrant populations may feel more comfortable speaking to doctors in their native language. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a communication kit that explains information relating to COVID-19 prevention, vaccination, and other topics available in 34 languages, including in Spanish, Arabic, and French.

Because of the trust built between primary care physicians and immigrant patients, Tallaj tells Verywell many immigrants may be reluctant to go to pharmacies and other vaccination sites, because the trust is not there between a pharmacist or a stranger at a vaccination site. "They're waiting for the doctors, and [doctors] don't have it," he says.

In order to increase further trust in the vaccines, Kenyon says it is beneficial to publicize "community leaders and celebrities receiving the vaccine...especially when they have a special following by those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, including communities of color."

"We saw this, for example, during HIV/AIDS when Magic Johnson revealed that he was HIV-positive and encouraged African Americans to go for HIV testing," Kenyon adds. "Many African [American] leaders and celebrities such as sports stars were tested for HIV in public and this helped to improve access to HIV/AIDS treatment as it became available."

Government Plays a Role in Vaccine Acceptance

When it comes to trusting in the COVID-19 vaccines, faith in a country's government may also play a role. An October 2020 international study published in the Nature Medicine journal found that people who trusted their government were more likely to want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. "Our findings show that trust in government is strongly associated with vaccine acceptance and can contribute to public compliance with recommended actions," the researchers wrote.

However, the study also found that people were less likely to want to get the vaccine if they were mandated to do so, either by the government or by an employer. Therefore, a careful balance must be struck between educating individuals about the COVID-19 vaccines without feeling coercive.

Kenyon stresses the importance of increasing transparency from local health departments about COVID-19 vaccines because the information currently available may not be as accessible for communities of color.

"The U.S. in particular, communities are very frustrated with the level of confusion, long wait times, lack of information, conflicting information, appointment cancellations, and other faults related to not having a standardized national program," he says. "Improving vaccine logistics and providing a more reliable and convenient service will also help to address vaccine hesitancy."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Borah P, Hwang J. Trust in doctors, positive attitudes, and vaccination behavior: the role of doctor-patient communication in H1N1 vaccination. Health Commun. 2021:1-9. doi:10.1080/10410236.2021.1895426

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Communication toolkit: for migrants, refugees, and other limited-English-proficient populations. Updated February 5, 2021.

  3. Lazarus J, Ratzan S, Palayew A, et al. A global survey of potential acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nat Med. 2021;27(2):354-354. doi:10.1038/s41591-020-01226-0

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