One of the simplest ways to address vaccine hesitancy is also the most effective: simply having a conversation. Academic hospitals and other medical providers across the country are now hosting vaccine forums, giving employees the chance to ask questions about how the vaccines were developed, the way mRNA vaccines work, and possible side effects.
In December 2020, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston, Massachusetts, facilitated a virtual forum with faculty and staff across the organization, ranging from nursing to environmental services staff. The forum was a community-wide conversation to discuss any questions and concerns they had about the vaccines, says Frantz Berthaud, MPH, DFCI’s administrative director for disease center operations.
Vidant Medical Group in Greenville, North Carolina, held a virtual panel for the hospital system’s employees in January 2021, an event that drew nearly 1,000 attendees — including doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers, and custodians, says Regional Medical Director and primary care physician Earic Bonner, MD.
Berthaud and Bonner say the events helped many staff members overcome hesitancy they may have had about the COVID-19 vaccines. They offer these tips to other academic medical centers that want to host a discussion:
1. Come ready to listen
It’s important to share a clear message about the safety of the vaccines and the need for everyone to get vaccinated so we can get back to normal. But Bonner also stressed the value of listening closely to participants’ questions and concerns, instead of sticking with a script. People have legitimate questions about COVID-19 vaccines and they deserve to have them answered. And just because people work at an academic medical center doesn’t mean they won’t have concerns.
“What’s made our outreach successful is that we’ve given people an outlet to ask their questions instead of lecturing. Anytime a venue is interactive, people tend to feel more comfortable,” Bonner says.
“The goal of our conversation was not to convince people to get the vaccine. That’s not our role,” says Berthaud. “But we did want people who often feel and have historically felt that there wasn’t informed consent to experiences in medicine and/or science to feel that they have it. So that was the deliverable: our staff feeling like they had all of the information they needed to make their own decisions.”
2. Be intentional about your speakers
Because people of different races, ages, professions, and genders may have very different concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines and how they were developed, make sure to plan carefully the makeup of your panel. Bonner was joined on the forum’s panel by Vidant’s director of infectious diseases, chief nursing officer, and chief medical officer. The panelists came from a variety of racial backgrounds, were of different ages, and included men and women.
“We were able to tackle a lot of questions and be sincere in our answers because there was someone who could identify with each and every issue,” Bonner says, pointing to issues such as fertility and medical racism.
All of the panelists at Dana-Farber’s event were people of color, an intentional effort to allow their faculty and staff of color to hear from their peers.
“We wanted to ensure attendees saw themselves in the individuals who were the harbingers of this information. We wanted to leverage the long-standing and reciprocal relationships between our clinicians and leaders of color and our staff of color,” Berthaud says. “We did not gloss over hesitancy being rooted in both historical and contemporary experiences and realities of systemic racism — within health care and by health care providers. We welcomed our VP of community health and deputy associate director for the Initiative to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, to share the stage with two physician leaders of color, one leading our Cancer Care Equity Program and the other our Patient Reported Outcomes Program. This was all deliberate. We had leaders who know our DFCI staff and the communities that they come from.”
3. Keep the conversation going
End the forum by telling people where they can go for additional information, such as an employee hotline, their manager, or a regularly updated FAQ on your institution’s website.
Bonner urges vaccine forum organizers to hold a series of discussions instead of a one-off event. Knowledge about the vaccines is changing daily. For example, as more people get vaccinated and trials continue, researchers have new information about guidance for vaccinated people, the safety of the vaccines for pregnant women and their infants and for children ages 12 to 15, and how side effects manifest for each vaccine. For academic medical centers, hosting multiple sessions gives attendees the chance to ask questions about updated guidance, new research, and developments such as the pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that occurred briefly in April.
“Having other options instead of a one-time forum helps because people start talking, and the people who joined the first forum have an opportunity to educate their peers,” Bonner says. “Some people will have questions they want to ask later.”
Berthaud stresses the importance of making the information accessible to all. Dana-Farber developed a website so staff could get their questions answered. The cancer institute also created a toolkit for managers to enable one-on-one and “micro-huddle” conversations with their staff, knowing that those environments might be better suited for questions that individuals did not want to ask in a larger forum.
“The conversation has gone beyond the walls of our organization, as we have gone on to hold virtual conversations for our Spanish-speaking community as well,” Berthaud says. “We wanted to think about all of the potential barriers that usually keep groups out of the health care system, like language, and address those from the outset.”