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The power of empathy in tackling vaccine hesitancy

A new study shows how, by making patients feel heard and understood, healthcare professionals can guide them to making better decisions about their health.

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A recent paper published under the EU-funded JITSUVAX project reveals that empathetic communication by healthcare professionals (HCPs) can help patients overcome any feelings of hesitancy towards being vaccinated. The study highlights the importance of empathetic engagement in influencing attitudes towards vaccination and the key role it could play in increasing vaccine uptake. The opposition to vaccination we encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic may have been our most recent experience of vaccine hesitancy, but it was far from humanity’s first. People have opposed vaccines ever since the 18th century, when British physician Edward Jenner showed how infecting people with cowpox made them immune against the deadly smallpox virus. However, could more effective communication strategies help overcome people’s lack of trust in vaccines? Yes, they could, according to the study, which showed communicating with empathy increases patients’ trust in and openness towards HCPs. “The challenge for HCPs is to navigate the conversation in a way that is perceived by patients as supportive and compelling,” report the study authors. Their research showed that over two thirds of vaccine-hesitant individuals preferred it when their HCPs also offered empathetic engagement rather than merely stating the facts when correcting vaccine misinformation. Study lead author Dr Dawn Holford of JITSUVAX project coordinator University of Bristol, United Kingdom, states in a news item posted on the project website: “Although we expected people to generally respond more positively to an empathetic approach, it was surprising how much greater the preference for this style of communication was among those who expressed concerns about vaccination. The study highlights how the way misinformation is tackled, especially with vaccine averse groups, can play a vital role in changing perceptions which can be hard to shift.”

The four steps of empathy

Involving a total of 2 545 participants who were predominantly negative or on the fence about vaccination, the study sought to test a new approach called the Empathetic Refutational Interview (ERI). As described in the study, this approach “is designed to guide a conversation in situations where patients express concern about being vaccinated.” The ERI consists of four steps. First, the HCP elicits the patient’s concerns about vaccination in order to better understand their motivations and reservations. Second, the HCP affirms the patient’s values and beliefs to show they understand and care, in this way building trust. Third, the HCP challenges any misconceptions in a way that is tailored to the patient’s psychological motivations. Last comes the opportunity to offer factual information about vaccines and the protection they provide. “The findings actively demonstrate the power of communication, which healthcare professionals can use in their daily roles. Our study shows it is possible to gain trust and change minds if we take people’s concerns seriously and tailor our approach to help them make informed decisions about their health,” observes Dr Holford, adding: “This is hugely encouraging, especially with the growing influence of misinformation and fake news worldwide.” The JITSUVAX (JIU-JITSU WITH MISINFORMATION IN THE AGE OF COVID: USING REFUTATION-BASED LEARNING TO ENHANCE VACCINE UPTAKE AND KNOWLEDGE AMONG HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS AND THE PUBLIC) study highlights the importance of going beyond simply refuting misconceptions when striving to change patients’ attitudes to vaccination. The research is currently being developed into training tools and programmes to support HCPs in France, Germany, Romania and the United Kingdom. For more information, please see: JITSUVAX project website


JITSUVAX, COVID-19, vaccination, vaccine, vaccine hesitancy, healthcare professional, empathy, patient

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