Why Empathy May Be The Missing Link In Achieving Higher Vaccination Rates

For some, concerns over vaccine safety and efficacy have persisted since the start of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Around the world, ongoing survey reports conducted by Morning Consult illustrate how vaccine skepticism remains stronger in some countries than in others. Between March 8 and March 14, interviews were collected from adults in the U.S. as well as 14 additional countries. In the 38,421 U.S. interviews, respondents were asked whether or not they had received the COVID-19 vaccine. Respondents selected one of the four multiple-choice answers: "Yes"; "No, but I will get it in the future"; "No, and I am not sure if I will get it in the future"; or "No, and I do not plan to get it."

With 21% of U.S. respondents reporting a firm unwillingness to receive the vaccine, the United States came in second next to Russia for the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy (via Morning Consult). However, survey findings also indicated that rates of vaccine hesitancy dropped by an average of seven points in the U.S. since 2020. While the U.S. has not experienced as large a drop in vaccine skepticism as other countries, empathetic communication may play a key role in changing those numbers (via U.S. News).

The importance of effective communication

Safety, effectiveness, and lack of access remain among the top concerns of those who are vaccine reluctant (via U.S. News). Associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Rupali Limaye, encourages people to approach vaccine conversations from a place of understanding, telling TODAY, "It's really important for us to be able to listen to people through an empathy lens and be compassionate about their questions because that's the only way that we're going to actually be able to increase vaccine acceptance." This can be especially important when talking to parents, who bear the responsibility of making healthcare choices for both themselves and their children.

When conversing, Limaye suggests using open-ended questions that pave the way for interest and engagement. This strategy, known as motivational interviewing, can include statements such as "Tell me about your vaccine decision," which Limaye offers as an example. In addition, responding with affirmative language and reflecting the person's feelings back to them fosters effective communication because they indicate that you've understood their concerns.

In a recent interview with NPR, Limaye offered body language guidance and stressed the importance of maintaining openness by avoiding arm crossing, eye-rolling, or looking at your phone. Lastly, experts say that leading with personal stories can often have more of an impact than bombarding a person with facts. If they are open to resources, be sure to ask permission before offering them.