Fear Factor Won't Sway Vaccine Skeptics

March 4, 2015
Eileen Oldfield Associate Editor

Using scare tactics to sway vaccine skeptics' views tends to backfire, suggesting that pharmacists and other health care professionals should alter their approach to counseling these patients.

Using scare tactics to sway vaccine skeptics’ views tends to backfire, suggesting that pharmacists and other health care professionals should alter their approach to counseling these patients.

The reason fear falls short is simple: arguments tend to ignore the concerns that, even when misguided, legitimately worry a patient, vaccines expert Stephan Foster, PharmD, FAPhA, FNAP, a professor and vice chair of the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy, told Pharmacy Times in an exclusive interview.

“It’s basically trying to argue with a person, and not trying to understand what they’re saying,” Dr. Foster said. “If they don’t want to hear it, you’re just wasting their and your time. Then, you’re pushing them, and they’re not going to change.”

Instead, pharmacists can benefit from incorporating motivational interviewing techniques that emphasize active listening, empathy, respect, and patient collaboration.

“You have to listen to them, you have to hear their concerns, and you have to let them know their concerns are real,” Dr. Foster told Pharmacy Times. “You can do that by telling them a lot of people feel the way they do. At the same time, have material to counter their fears or misinformation.”

Persistence can be a vital factor in interacting with patients who are skeptical of vaccines, because a single interaction is unlikely to sway their views, Dr. Foster said.

“A pharmacist needs to expect that the patient will accept their recommendation,” Dr. Foster noted. “Everyone wants to be more knowledgeable in an area, and unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

For a recent study published in Communication Research, researchers examined patients’ emotional reactions to vaccination messages, including messages relating health risks associated with opting out of vaccines. Those with anti-vaccine views were not emotionally affected by the messages, which included images of a child hospitalized due to a vaccine-preventable illness, and they also had a lower risk perception regarding non-vaccination, the authors found.

A patient’s existing biases frequently affect their perceptions, limiting a message’s effectiveness within certain groups, the researchers said.

“The fear is that emotional campaigns might lead people with anti-vaccine views to become even less concerned about the risk of vaccine-preventable disease,“ said study author Graham Dixon, associate professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, in a press release. “Instead of using scare tactics, health practitioners should target the factors behind anti-vaccination beliefs by improving doctor-patient relationships and increasing trust in modern medicine.”