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Communicating the Importance of Vaccines

Dr. Amanda Dempsey shares strategies for discussing vaccines with skeptical parents.

Published September 11, 2018

Communicating the Importance of Vaccines
Amanda Dempsey MD, PhD, MPH

Amanda Dempsey MD, PhD, MPH

The emergence of a powerful anti-vaccination movement is now threatening the progress made by vaccines in the 20th century. Amanda Dempsey, MD, PhD, MPH is a pediatrician confronting the myths surrounding vaccines through innovative communication techniques, with exciting results.

Why is there an increasing skepticism regarding vaccines?

It begins with the media environment. Information is now much more accessible than it was a couple decades ago. Contrary opinions can have a strong voice in social media, and the internet, and can spread just as easily as more reliable sources of information. This leads people to believe that there are two equal sides, even though there's a lot more scientific evidence supporting the necessity and the safety of vaccines than there is about their potential downsides.

What do you tell a parent who is skeptical about immunization?

I would ask about the underlying reasons for their skepticism. Honing in on one specific concern is important because you don't want to inadvertently raise new concerns for that parent.

Then I would focus on the fact that vaccination is the norm, and I would explain why vaccination is important. I cover the safety process that vaccines undergo, the vaccination risks — which are minimal, but not zero — and finally make the case for why the risks associated with vaccinations are outweighed by the benefits.

"Research shows that taking a paternalistic approach — just saying vaccines are the norm — is effective, but only for parents who are mostly, or completely on board with vaccines."

Do you have a method for dealing with parents who remain unconvinced? 

One technique is motivational interviewing. This communication style was initially developed for helping healthcare providers address motivation and compliance issues in patients with substance abuse.

My group adapted some tools from motivational interviewing and applied them to our conversations about vaccines with parents who have questions or concerns. It changes the dynamic of the patient-provider relationship. I’m no longer on the opposite side of the vaccination issue, I’m helping them think through their decision-making in a way that feels like we’re working towards a joint decision.

Research shows that taking a paternalistic approach — just saying vaccines are the norm — is effective, but only for parents who are mostly, or completely on board with vaccines. For the parents that have more substantial concerns or questions, simplistic approaches aren’t going to work. That’s where turning to more nuanced techniques, like motivational interviewing, can be quite helpful.

What is the Ready Vac study?

The Ready Vac study is taking a different approach, called tailored messaging. We try to focus the conversation on the concerns that a parent actually has, so as not to overwhelm them with too much information, which can cause some people to tune out. We want to highlight the information that most speaks to their particular concerns or needs.

The need for this type of intervention arises from the fact that when parents have a lot of questions about vaccines, there's not enough time in a regular clinical visit to be able to discuss all of their concerns.

How will this study help promote vaccinations?

We created an online tool that customizes information about vaccines based on each parent's unique values, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. Each person gets a different compilation of information depending on their major concerns about the vaccines.

This way, you're providing relevant information to that person and not diluting the impact with extraneous information that they don't care about or want to know.

The hope is that this sort of automated tool will be effective at improving parents' vaccination attitudes, acceptance, and ultimately the rate at which their children are up to date with recommended vaccines.

To learn more from Dr. Dempsey and others experts, register to attend “Science Denial: Lessons and Solutions” a daylong symposium at the Academy’s headquarters on Friday, November 2, 2018.