How to Talk to Parents About Vaccines

As health professionals, we all want our patients and communities to take an active role in their health care – to educate themselves about their bodies and medical conditions, and the preventive steps they can take to live long and healthy lives. But what do you do when that patient is a child, the person doing the research is a parent, and what they are reading is actually misinformation linking childhood vaccines to autism?

That’s the all-too-common scenario many health care professionals are finding themselves in, and one a SurroundHealth member recently addressed in a new article, “Trust and Science: How Do We Communicate with Parents about Vaccines.” Apparently the article hit a nerve: it was the most popular article on SurroundHealth last month and has begun generating some lively discussion among members.

“Vaccines have become ground zero for many parents to line-up against science,” writes member Tammy Pilisuk, MPH, a California based health educator. Recent polls indicate that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 1 in 4 parents still think vaccines are linked to autism, and 1 in 10 parents are also delaying or postponing at least some vaccines.

The challenge for health educators, Pilisuk writes, is to really listen to parents’ concerns about vaccines, while also helping them make informed decisions that are in the best interest of their individual child as well as society.

“Vaccines, once hailed as the most successful public health accomplishment of the past century, have become  a curious paradox for people in public health. We’re so used to fighting issues of social injustice and barriers to care for those most disenfranchised. But in this case, the most reluctant parents to fully vaccinate their kids on-schedule are well-educated and typically have plenty of opportunity to immunize. This represents a new conundrum where we need to know how to have a respectful and productive conversation with people who are inherently mistrustful of “western medicine” perceived “toxins” and corporate profit motives. I find this a fascinating challenge. It’s even made me think more about cognitive sciences and why people believe what they believe.”

In her article, Pilisuk highlights a few suggestions for public health experts and the medical community:

  • Try to create an environment where the parent is comfortable bringing questions to the doctor or staff.
  • Refer parents to reputable websites that cite the most up-to-date research about vaccines.
  • Make sure the parent has real – not abstract – information about the diseases the vaccines protect again.

To learn more about talking with parents about vaccines, and to hear what other health professionals have to say on the topic, read the full version of the article on SurroundHealth, a free online network for health professionals.

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About dominikablogs

Dominika is a Community Manager of SurroundHealth, an online network where health professionals of different backgrounds come together to learn and share best practices. Dominika has her Master's in Public Health, and is a Certified Health Education Specialist. Prior to SurroundHealth, Dominika worked for Kaiser Permanente, American Cancer Society, both in Patient Services and Community Health, and for HealthEd, developing patient education materials.
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