Parminder Singh is the co-founder of HealthCare Plus, a network of digital-first clinics, and the managing director of clinical services at health tech company Think Research. Jason Flowerday is the managing director of Think Research and Sachin Aggarwal is the CEO.
Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate concern – one that’s being amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that government officials are worried about it, and Ottawa has set up a team of behavioural scientists to monitor how Canadians feel about vaccines and public-health messaging.
We also know from previous research on flu vaccines that doctors play a crucial role in shaping attitudes of acceptance. Research shows that when health care providers deliver tailored information on vaccines, hesitancy decreases. What’s more, polls show that Canadians trust their own doctor over the government. Still, family doctors and other primary-care physicians say they are largely being left in the dark when it comes to vaccination strategy.
According to Ontario’s vaccine task force, primary-care physicians will eventually be able to vaccinate their patients. But physicians say they have more questions than answers and are being flooded with calls from patients who are just as confused.
This does not promote public confidence.
The COVID-19 vaccine effort is the largest public-health campaign in recent history. Given concerns around vaccine hesitancy, the government should better update primary-care physicians on its rollout plans. Failing to do so is a missed opportunity to combat hesitancy head-on.
Better messaging about the exact role primary-care doctors will play and when they will be contacting their patients will promote greater trust in the vaccine program. Offering information to doctors allows them to pass on that knowledge. It’s important physicians use every opportunity to communicate with patients the significance of vaccines and answer, without judgement, any questions they may have.
We’re at an important juncture. Researchers at McGill University and the University of Toronto surveyed nearly 40,000 Canadians and analyzed 277 million social-media posts from June to November to understand feelings around COVID-19 vaccines. Fifteen per cent of respondents said they were unwilling to get the vaccine and 19 per cent said they were unsure. The top two reasons given were beliefs the vaccine was unsafe and/or ineffective. Notably, the researchers found a lack of trust in experts to be an important factor in COVID-19 risk perceptions.
This is understandable during a time of global anxiety and a quickly evolving disease. Constant updates about variants, studies of vaccine efficacy and treatment advancements can overwhelm even health professionals. Add in conspiracy theories and unreliable sources of information, and we have a breeding ground for inaccurate information.
Unlike people who are against vaccines in general, many who are hesitant about the COVID-19 shot are not necessarily anti-vax. Instead, they often have genuine concerns about the safety or efficacy of the vaccines and want assurance before rolling up their sleeves. Vaccine-hesitant people exist on a spectrum; some want to wait until others are vaccinated first, while others believe some vaccines are better or safer than others. Others have experiences that make them distrustful of the health care system.
Primary-care physicians can arm their patients with the latest evidence-based knowledge and be prepared to give quick answers to common COVID-19 vaccine questions. These doctors have relationships with their patients and are likely to be seen as reliable sources of information. This is vital as people grow tired of tuning into the news.
It’s important to note that marginalized or racialized communities may rightfully have higher levels of skepticism given governments’ history of testing vaccines and medical procedures on them. Indigenous children were test subjects in tuberculosis-vaccine experiments in the 1930s and 1940s. Around the same time, Black Americans were unknowingly subjected to the Tuskegee Study, in which researchers purposefully didn’t treat Black men with syphilis and watched what happened to them. Black Canadians’ experiences of racism also have roots in health care. Acknowledging the legitimate concerns of racialized patients is crucial to ensuring that all Canadians have better health care outcomes – especially since COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed these communities.
We know that COVID-19 vaccines are safe; millions of people around the world have already been vaccinated. The pandemic will only end once we get people inoculated, but it’s not enough for government officials to say so. Vaccine efforts are only going to be successful if vaccine hesitancy is taken seriously, and the concerns of Canadians are addressed. Primary-care doctors are the first line of defence in making this happen.
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