Expert Perspective

February 18, 2021

Communication Strategies to Build Patient Confidence

Dr. Joe Nicholson – Chief Medical Officer

How do your patients feel about getting a COVID-19 vaccine? Are they:

  1. so eager that they are frustrated they can not get one immediately?
  2. waiting to see about any side effects before rolling up their sleeves?
  3. planning to skip vaccination entirely?

Chances are good that the answer is a blend of all three.

Patients who have risk factors or who have witnessed the disease may fall into the first category. Others may favor vaccines but be concerned about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and approved—especially given the newness of mRNA platforms. Still others may be skeptical about the health care system, about COVID-19, or about vaccines in general.

These diverse viewpoints make it more challenging—but all the more important—for health care organizations to communicate with patients about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. To help build confidence, trust and a positive patient experience, providers must be prepared to address the full range of patient perspectives as they launch their immunization campaigns. 

Open up the conversation

As clinicians, we must try to convey the benefits immunizations can bring to our patients and communities. Every clinician should talk with patients about the efficacy, safety, and potential side effects of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines in general. But as crucial as the vaccine product conversation is, providers cannot forget to discuss the vaccine administration process when it comes to COVID-19.

It is an unusual conversation, no doubt. Think about all the flu shots administered over the years. How many patients ask how those vaccines are stored and used? Yet with national attention focused on the logistical challenges confronting COVID-19 immunization—like refrigeration requirements—patients want reassurance that their COVID-19 vaccines are being handled properly. So, offer transparency into how the products are being refrigerated and the steps being taken to ensure their safe use. Speak about how your organization is logging refrigerator temperatures, for example, or carefully documenting the times when vaccine syringes are drawn and administered. 

Providers should be prepared, too, for patients who are frustrated by their community’s vaccine rollout process. It is important for providers to listen to the concerns and let patients know they are heard before describing the whys behind the local rollout process and assuring them your organization is moving as quickly as it can.

Best practices — anytime

Given the super-charged environment surrounding COVID-19, it is a good idea to think as much about how your organization communicates with patients as what it communicates. Three more “best practices” include:

  1. Use nursing staff as a “human bridge” between your organization and patients. Choose people on your nursing team with the best people skills, and put them on the phone with patients who have questions or concerns specific to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is impossible to overestimate the power that such human-to-human conversations can have.
  2. Develop patient-friendly vaccination handouts. Create a meaningful, written one-pager that goes beyond the usual legal disclaimers for each vaccine product your organization administers. Each handout should describe in layman’s terms not just the potential vaccine side effects but their likely timing and severity as well. For example, patients should understand that side effects from two-dose vaccines may be worse after the second dose. Tell patients whom to contact if they have questions. Also, for two-dose vaccines, use bold print to call out the date and time of the patient’s follow-up vaccination appointment.
  3. Post videos on your website or social media. As with all fast-changing information, it is imperative to clearly time-stamp anything your organization shares on a public platform. For instance, videos offer an engaging way to bring high-level information to patients. They are also a good way to encourage patients to visit the websites of other responsible sources such as local and state health departments, national medical specialty societies, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In some ways, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is testing our provider/patient communication skills as never before. Yet as disruptive as COVID-19 is, it has not changed the core ingredients that go into a successful and satisfying experience. No matter the clinical circumstances, conversations built on empathy, honesty and clarity will always help providers strengthen their bonds with patients.

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