Katherine Nicol
Katherine Nicol

Health professionals remain the most trusted influencers of vaccination decisions, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and related vaccine hesitancy, a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation confirmed.

When respondents were asked who they trust to provide reliable information about the COVID-19 vaccines, 83 percent of adults said they trust their own doctor a great deal or a fair amount, and 85 percent of parents said the same about their child’s pediatrician.

Doctors, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners are essential to increasing acceptance and uptake of vaccines—from delivering information and answering questions, to administering vaccines, increasing vaccination rates and reducing hesitancy.

It’s therefore critical that health professionals have the communications skills necessary to recommend vaccines effectively and to acknowledge and discuss patients’ questions and concerns in a confident and knowledgeable manner.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '21 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

The benefits of and focus on effective provider-patient communications are not unique to vaccination. In 2017, the American Society of Clinical Oncology issued guidelines to improve provider communications with patients. Particularly in the context of a diagnosis like cancer, providers must have the ability to support patients by effectively building rapport, providing information in a manner that the patient understands, and addressing patient concerns in a complete yet concise way. The ASCO guidelines include recommendations for core communication skills and training, and strategies for communicating effectively, particularly when barriers exist. There are, of course, parallels with using effective patient-provider communication to overcome barriers to vaccination.

Upon release of the ASCO guidelines, the Journal of Clinical Oncology noted that, “Good interpersonal skills are not a substitute for strong health care communication skills.” ASCO is one of many professional organizations that have come to recognize that communication is not a “soft skill” for providers, but is, in fact, a critical element of their profession. Health professionals must have the knowledge and understanding of both the clinical topic as well as the patient’s own barriers—perceived or otherwise—to inform and influence their patients’ decisions. Providers must have the confidence and ability to communicate effectively with patients and their caregivers.

In recent years, more and more provider organizations, public health entities, and federal agencies have developed guidance, tools, and resources to elevate and enhance provider-patient communications and make the most of the often limited time a provider has to spend with a patient. Most recently, vaccine hesitancy in the context of the COVID-19 vaccine as well as other pediatric and adult vaccines, has created an urgent need for a focus on effective patient-provider communication.

How can these standard communication guidelines be applied in a manner that maximizes patient trust and effectively addresses vaccine hesitancy? There are five core elements of effective patient-provider communications that are consistent across clinical practice, specialty area, and diagnosis that are of particular relevance to health professionals working to overcome vaccine hesitancy. These elements provide useful and essential guidance for healthcare providers.

Use clear, plain language. Whether taking a medical history, sharing test results, explaining a diagnosis or treatment plan, or responding to questions about vaccines, health professionals should avoid medical jargon, abstract concepts and long, complex sentences. Additionally, remember that illness, uncertainty, and stress—including the unprecedented stress of a global pandemic—can affect comprehension and a person’s ability to process information.

Educate as well as inform. A provider’s role goes beyond simply reporting test results or a diagnosis, or recommending a vaccine. The provider must help the patient understand what they mean. In some cases, this means providers can use visual aids to “show” in addition to “telling”. Providers should share evidence-based resources and materials with patients and be aware of digital resources that can be shared during telehealth visits. Focus on the benefits of vaccinations, and clearly and concisely explain the health risks of getting and of not getting vaccinated. Be open, direct, and honest. Bring cultural competence to the discussion. Remember that transparency matters—state the knowns and unknowns in this ever-evolving situation. Providers should not hesitate to share their own stories of why they chose to get vaccinated and/or vaccinate their family, backed by the science that informs that narrative.

Make a strong, confident recommendation. Building on the trust that already exists, and mindful of the health professionals’ well-established position as trusted messenger, use affirmative language that conveys confidence. Be reassuring and use science and current, trusted data to inform and shift inaccurate perceptions of social norms. Leave space for patients and/or parents and caregivers to feel comfortable asking questions.

Listen not just to “hear,” but to understand. Particularly in the case of vaccination, acknowledge that this is a personal decision. Listen to what the patient or caregiver is saying, carefully and with empathy. Then, formulate a response. This can be a challenging exercise when a patient has a lot to say, particularly with regard to vaccine misinformation or disinformation. Many professional organizations and federal resources offer communications tips and time-savers or Q&As to help guide these types of patient-provider discussions.

Ask the patient to share their understanding. Can the patient briefly and accurately share their understanding of the recommendation, diagnosis, or medical orders? Providers should ask patients to repeat key points back to make sure they have a clear understanding, particularly when it comes to correcting inaccurate perceptions based on vaccine misinformation or disinformation.

Increasing the overall quality of communications skills among providers is worth the time and investment that many professional organizations are dedicating, and when implemented will no doubt improve health outcomes, including the uptake of potentially life-saving vaccines. And that benefits everyone.


Katherine Nicol is Executive Vice President, Health Practice Director at Hager Sharp.