National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM) is an annual observance held in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages. As of August 23, 2021, approximately 171 million United States residents (51.16 percent of the total population) have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Although the vaccine for the novel coronavirus has been a somewhat controversial issue in America, all three vaccines that received emergency use authorization (EUA) in December 2020 have been proven to be safe and highly effective. A few days ago, on August 23, United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, which will now be marketed as Comirnaty.

Vaccines have been utilized for more than a century to curb and sometimes even eliminate the spread of infectious diseases. Each year, vaccination prevents 2.7 million cases of measles, two million cases of neonatal tetanus, one million cases of pertussis, 600,000 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis and 300,000 cases of diphtheria.  

Along with preventing disease in those who receive them, vaccination offers a multitude of advantages, including: 

  • Reducing the likelihood of disease transmission
  • Decreasing antibiotic use
  • Lowering diagnostics and treatment costs
  • Reducing numbers of ambulatory care visits
  • Decreasing need for medical interventions and hospitalizations  

Vaccine Hesitancy and the Role of Social Determinants of Health 

According to the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, one-fifth of adults (21 percent) now report being vaccinated after saying in January they planned on waiting to get vaccinated, would only get it if required or would definitely not get vaccinated. Slightly more than half (54 percent) of those who were in the “wait and see” group back in January say they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, while 46 percent of adults in this group report not being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.  

During the 2019-2020 flu season, only about half of adults in the U.S. were vaccinated for the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While that rate was up three percentage points from the previous year, 52 percent of Americans were not protected against the flu. A RAND study suggests that the top three reasons why adults choose to go forgo the flu vaccine includes the beliefs that:

  • They don’t need the vaccine.
  • They don’t believe the vaccine works.
  • They perceive a risk of unwanted side effects of the vaccine. 

Vaccine hesitancy is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) Hesitancy Working Group as the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services. WHO describes it as a complex behavioral phenomenon influenced by factors such as complacency, convenience and confidence. 

Where people live and work along with other factors also influence vaccination decision-making. These factors are included in social determinants of health (SDOH), which the WHO defines as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and circumstances that are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels.”

For example, a study published in the Journal of Community Health noted that individuals who had lower education, income or perceived threat of getting infected were more likely to report that they were not likely/definitely not going to get the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the journal Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, some of the other SDOH that influence vaccination are:

  • Household living conditions
  • Healthcare access
  • Philosophical and cultural beliefs
  • Religious affiliations
  • Urban vs. rural residence 

How to Improve COVID-19 Vaccination Rates 

The best way to enable patient access to the vaccine is by developing a well-thought-out communication plan that will engage their patients and increase vaccination compliance rates. The greater number of patients who get vaccinated, the better protected our communities will be. The following three steps can ensure your practice or healthcare organization is able to develop and promote a targeted vaccination program that encourages patients to take an active role in their healthcare and seek preventative care in order to put a halt to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

1. Target your specific at-risk populations with navigational steps. 

The first step in improving patient access to the COVID-19 vaccine begins with identifying which patient population groups need the vaccine the most. In the U.S., this means targeting individuals who have not yet received it. 

A COVID-19 vaccine communication plan should prioritize engagement with these patients. This outreach could include promoting community vaccine events, answering any patient questions about the immunizations and providing or arranging transportation services if necessary.

Many patients don’t intend to be non-compliant when it comes to getting vaccinated. They simply lack the resources or education to understand how they can get vaccinated or why it’s important. Your healthcare team really needs to proactively answer the question, “What do I do, and how do I do it?” 

Whether you use automated text messaging, marketing flyers or some other form of communication, the most effective way to influence vaccination rates is to be specific and clear about what patients need to do for a vaccine. According to newly published research, text message reminders could increase Covid-19 vaccine uptake by as much as 26 percent. Addressing the “how-tos” can help to ensure your at-risk patients are prepared to receive the vaccine. 

2. Educate your population segments with clear messaging. 

In addition to communicating the “how” to specific population segments, it’s also important to explain, “Why does this matter to me?” Patients need to understand the risks associated with going unvaccinated, such as serious illness leading to hospitalization or even death. If their risk involves a comorbidity, like diabetes or obesity, explain how their existing condition increases the likelihood that they may face serious consequences if they don’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Beyond personal health benefits, the COVID-19 vaccine is imperative for public health and the safety of those around us. Be clear about how their decision to receive or forgo a vaccination impacts the health of their family, friends and community at large. By explaining the “why” in a way that is personalized and relevant to each individual, people can feel empowered to make a responsible decision that will improve both their life and the lives of loved ones. 

3. Leverage behavioral economics to drive action. 

Behavioral economics combines decision-making, economics, judgment and psychological insights to better understand human behavior. University of Chicago professor and Nobel Memorial Prize winner Richard Thaler suggests that we can slightly shift people’s behavior by subtly changing the context for their decision-making. Many scholars in healthcare believe the key to driving change is by using incentives and disincentives to affect different and better human behavior. 

In other words, perhaps we can make small changes in the way we incentivize vaccinations in order to compel patients to take action. If we can identify how our patients’ thinking impacts their choice to get a COVID-19 vaccine, we can then take steps to influence what they think and therefore, how they decide to act. 

Successful mass vaccination is critical to reducing COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Learn how our vaccine management program can help you effectively and efficiently vaccinate your patients while protecting their privacy. Schedule a demo today with an expert at Providertech. 

If you have questions about the new vaccines, read one of our recent blogs focusing on COVID-19 Vaccines: Myth vs. Fact.