There has never been a time where widespread immunization has been more important. However, at a time where vaccination is so crucial, vaccine hesitation has also been at its highest. I’m sure we’ve all met or at least heard of people with significant concerns (read: filled with ridiculous alternative facts and conspiracy theories) about getting vaccinated, but what can we do to help increase the uptake of vaccines when we meet one of these people? 


  • Listen and understand


The best way to convince anyone of anything is not by overloading them with information or arguments supporting your view. It’s to be receptive to their view, so that they may be equally receptive to yours when you present your beliefs. Vaccination hesitancy is no exception to this rule. By listening and understanding their perspectives, not only will you be able to identify how best to convince them, but you will also make it easier for yourself to present your arguments later down the track.


  • Elicit their concerns


Often, people demonstrating vaccine hesitancy have specific concerns. Simply overloading them with information about the benefits of vaccines will do nothing if you do not actually identify their cause for concern and target that issue specifically. Sometimes, the concern is to do with the safety of the vaccine, or at other times, it’s to do with their beliefs that there is no need for the vaccine. Whatever the concern is, by asking the individual about why they’re hesitant about vaccination, you can identify the problem, and subsequently address it.


  • Avoid the ‘righting reflex’


Pretend you’re in an argument. Now imagine that no matter what point you make, your opponent immediately declares that you’re wrong and tries to override you with a point or statistic of their own. Aren’t you frustrated already? Well that’s exactly how it feels for those with vaccine hesitancy when they try to discuss their viewpoints. Now as fellow medical students, I’m sure you all feel (as I do) that whenever somebody proposes a point that is blatantly false (like the somehow common notion that vaccines contain tracking chips from the government), the only right thing to do is to correct that notion. However, try to refrain, and instead, take it in stride. You can provide counterevidence later, but by listening and avoiding this ‘righting reflex’, you can make them more amenable to your own points.


  • Do not attack their sources, or worse, the individual themselves


Yes, it’s ridiculous that most of the sources of misinformation surrounding vaccines come from blatantly biased, poorly-written blogs. But to many people, these sources seem as valid – or even more valid – than the papers and RCT results that we get our information from. There’s a number of reasons for this – our manuscripts are often written in a way that’s inaccessible to the general public, and typically, online blogs are good enough for most of our everyday needs (think every time you try to look for a recipe online). Discrediting their sources is not going to get you anywhere, because it’s not like the individual you’re arguing with is going to trust your sources any more. Even worse, don’t discredit the individual’s own intelligence. Instead, try presenting your own sources in a more accessible way. Simplify the knowledge, or give them pamphlets that summarise big studies briefly and in layman’s terms. By positing your own data as an equally understandable source, the individual is more likely to consider it alongside their own existing sources.


  • Avoid overstating/overselling your point


I’m sure you’ve done this before. You’ve told someone that the risks of vaccinations are almost zero, and the benefit that they bring is immeasurable. Realistically, this isn’t actually the case for most vaccines. Give them the objective truth – that vaccines do carry risks, but for most individuals, the benefits far outweigh the real and valid risks.


  • Empathise and communicate risks effectively


It’s difficult for most people to understand risk. Psychologically speaking, humans are generally pretty risk-averse to begin with. When the media exaggerates those risks, vaccinations can seem scary, even to the most reasonable people. Understanding that, and communicating the true risks effectively can go a long way in reducing that undeserved reservation the public has against immunisations. Using simple ratios (only one in a million) rather than percentages (0.0001%) or other statistics can be an effective way of communicating risks.


  • Provide them with information about the benefits and risks, and allow them to make their own decision


Don’t try to force the vaccines upon them. Often, trying to force people to do a particular thing just does the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. In my case, I have often defied sound and reasonable advice purely out of pettiness and spite. Instead, aim to leave the decision in their hands, and trust that they will make the right choice.


  • Tailor your approach to the patient’s level of hesitancy


There’s no point arguing with someone who will simply never budge an inch on their stance. Alternatively, you also shouldn’t give up too easily on someone who could potentially be persuaded to get themselves to a vaccination clinic. Have an open and honest discussion with the individual, and directly ask what their stance is. If they tell you that they have concerns with the vaccine, ask open-ended questions to elicit what those concerns are (see the above point on eliciting concerns). If they get defensive and tell you rudely to mind your own business, perhaps it’s best to move on to another topic to keep the rapport you’ve established with that individual.


This is by no means a comprehensive list of the things you should do in order to convince someone to get themselves vaccinated. Instead, this is just a list of tips to help make you a better communicator and improve your chances of invoking positive change in others. Whether you meet a hesitant individual in the clinic or in your own personal life, try to remember these points to ensure that you have as fruitful a conversation as possible.

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