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Empathy is key to overcoming vaccine hesitancy, research suggests

Empathy is key to overcoming vaccine hesitancy, research suggests

A model of communicating with patients about vaccine hesitancy, focusing on empathy, could help improve uptake, researchers have found.

They tested the approach of ‘empathetic refutational interview’ in more than 2,500 patients in the UK and US who had negative opinions or were on the fence about vaccination.

Healthcare professionals were trained to use the approach, which includes first finding out more about the individual’s specific concerns to better understand their motivations and reservations, then empathising with their views, while also addressing false or misleading anti-vaccination arguments. The last part of the process involves providing facts about immunisation.

Reporting the findings in the journal of Health Psychology, in which the technique was tested against a control group who had facts only, they said the technique produced small effects on increasing vaccine acceptance and lowering support for anti-vaccination arguments.

The team at the University of Bristol who tested the approach said the extent to which patients preferred this style of communication was surprising.

Study leader Dr Dawn Holford, senior research associate in psychology, said the results were timely given the UK currently facing a growing measles outbreak due to falling MMR uptake.

She explained that 69% of the vaccine-hesitant study participants who received empathetic engagement from a healthcare professional preferred this compared with a group who were just told the facts.

They found that most participants (64%) who experienced the empathetic refutational interview indicated they were more open to continuing the conversation with a healthcare professional.

In all, 12% became more willing to be vaccinated compared to those participants who received the factual approach.

‘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,’ said Dr Holford.

‘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.’

She added: ‘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.

‘This is hugely encouraging, especially with the growing influence of misinformation and fake news worldwide.’

The research is now being developed into training tools and programmes to support healthcare professionals in the UK, France, Germany, and Romania.

Co-author Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, said it was important to understand people’s motivations.

‘By affirming and empathising with those deeply held attitudes we create a space where people are sufficiently comfortable to process corrective information, so they can make a better informed decision.’

In February the UK Health Security Agency launched a campaign in a bid to drive up childhood vaccinations across England.

It said that uptake levels of childhood vaccines offered through the routine NHS vaccination programme in England ‘have been falling over the past decade across all vaccines’ with England no longer having the levels of population immunity recommended by the World Health Organization that is needed to prevent outbreaks.

There will be a particular focus on areas with low MMR uptake with parents of six-to-11-year-olds contacted for catch up vaccines.


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Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

David Church 22 March, 2024 12:12 pm

I suppose they mean empathy from everyone who is not Government or manufacturer, or making a huge profit from it?
Honesty from the top authorities to the public would be much better than instructing empathy from equally misled clinicians to pateints, but it may be they have burnt their boats on that one already, with the amount of disinformation sent out by government officials already. This has been dreadful for public health.

Decorum Est 25 March, 2024 3:38 pm

‘Dr Dawn Holford, senior research associate in psychology’ seems to think that vaccinators have the time and psychological energy to follow her advice. I can foresee the likely outcome. Lots of parents angrily telling potential vaccinators not to patronise them (though such folk are unlikely to attend clinics for vaccinations in the first place).