Frontline vaccine advocates
Hospitalists are the frontline advocates within their hospital system, in a position to lead, so they need to make vaccines a priority, Dr. Carpenter said. They should also make sure that their hospitals have ready access to the vaccine, so patients who agree to receive it are able to get it quickly. “In our hospital they can get the shot within a few hours if the opportunity arises. We stocked the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so that they wouldn’t have to connect with another health care provider in order to get a second dose.”
Hospitals should also invest in access to vaccine counseling training and personnel. “Fund a nurse clinician who can screen and counsel hospitalized patients for vaccination. If they meet resistance, they can then refer to the dedicated physician of the day to have the conversation,” she said. “But if we don’t mention it, patients will assume we don’t feel strongly about it.”
Because hospitalists are front and center in treating COVID, they need to be the experts and the people offering guidance, said Shyam Odeti, MD, SFHM, FAAFP, section chief for hospital medicine at the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Va. “What we’re trying to do is spread awareness. We educated physician groups, learners, and clinical teams during the initial phase, and now mostly patients and their families.” COVID vaccine reluctance is hard to overcome, Dr. Odeti said. People feel the vaccine was developed very quickly. But there are different ways to present it.
“Like most doctors, I thought people would jump on a vaccine to get past the pandemic. I was surprised and then disappointed. Right now, the pandemic is among the unvaccinated. So we face these encounters, and we’re doing our best to overcome the misinformation. My organization is 100% supportive. We talk about these issues every day.”
Carilion, effective Oct. 1, has required unvaccinated employees to get weekly COVID tests and wear an N95 mask while working, and has developed Facebook pages, other social media, and an Internet presence to address these issues. “We’ve gone to the local African-American community with physician leaders active in that community. We had a Spanish language roundtable,” Dr. Odeti said.
Dr. Skandhan reported that the Wiregrass regional chapter of SHM recently organized a successful statewide community educational event aimed at empowering community leaders to address vaccine misinformation and mistrust. “We surveyed religious leaders and pastors regarding the causes of vaccine hesitancy and reached out to physicians active in community awareness.” Based on that input, a presentation by the faith leaders was developed. Legislators from the Alabama State Senate’s Healthcare Policy Committee were also invited to the presentation and discussion.
Trying to stay positive
It’s important to try to stay positive, Dr. Odeti said. “We have to be empathetic with every patient. We have to keep working at this, since there’s no way out of the pandemic except through vaccinations. But it all creates stress for hospitalists. Our job is made significantly more difficult by the vaccine controversy.”
Jennifer Cowart, MD, a hospitalist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., has been outspoken in her community about vaccination and masking issues, talking to reporters, attending rallies and press conferences, posting on social media, and speaking in favor of mask policies at a local school board meeting. She is part of an informal local group called Doctors Fighting COVID, which meets online to strategize how to share its expertise, including writing a recent letter about masks to Jacksonville’s mayor.
“In July, when we saw the Delta variant surging locally, we held a webinar via local media, taking calls about the vaccine from the community. I’m trying not to make this a political issue, but we are health officials.” Dr. Cowart said she also tries not to raise her voice when speaking with vaccine opponents and tries to remain empathetic. “Even though inwardly I’m screaming, I try to stay calm. The misinformation is real. People are afraid and feeling pressure. I do my best, but I’m human, too.”
Hospitalists need to pull whatever levers they can to help advance understanding of vaccines, Dr. Cowart said. “In the hospital, our biggest issue is time. We often don’t have it, with a long list of patients to see. But every patient encounter is an opportunity to talk to patients, whether they have COVID or something else.” Sometimes, she might go back to a patient’s room after rounds to resume the conversation.
Hospital nurses have been trained and entrusted to do tobacco abatement counseling, she said, so why not mobilize them for vaccine education? “Or respiratory therapists, who do inhaler training, could talk about what it’s like to care for COVID patients. There’s a whole bunch of staff in the hospital who could be mobilized,” she said.
“I feel passionate about vaccines, as a hospitalist, as a medical educator, as a daughter, as a responsible member of society,” said Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, SFHM, MACP, director of continuing medical education at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. “I see this as a personal and societal responsibility. When I speak about the vaccine among groups of doctors, I say we need to stay in our lane regarding our skills at interpreting the science and not undermining it.”
Some health care worker hesitancy is from distrust of pharmaceutical companies, or of federal agencies, she said. “Our research has highlighted to me the widespread inequity issues in our health care system. We should also take a long, hard look at how we teach the scientific method to health professionals. That will be part of a pandemic retrospective.”
Sometimes with people who are vaccine deliberative, whether health care workers or patients, there is a small window of opportunity. “We need to hear people and respond to them as people. Then, if they are willing to get vaccinated, we need to accomplish that as quickly and easily as possible,” Dr. Barrett said. “I see them make a face and say, ‘Well, okay, I’ll do it.’ We need to get the vaccine to them that same day. We should be able to accomplish that.”
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Lessons for hospitalists from the vaccination controversy
1. Remain up-to-date on information about the COVID infection, its treatment, and vaccination efficacy data.
2. Hospitalists should take advantage of their positions to lead conversations in their facilities about the importance of COVID vaccinations.
3. Other professionals in the hospital, with some additional training and support, could take on the role of providing vaccine education and support – with a physician to back them up on difficult cases.
4. It’s important to listen to people’s concerns, try to build trust, and establish dialogue before starting to convey a lot of information. People need to feel heard.
5. If you are successful in persuading someone to take the vaccine, a shot should be promptly and easily accessible to them.
6. Pediatric hospitalists may have more experience and skill with vaccine discussions, which they should share with their peers who treat adults.