Flu shots? They make me sick!

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Ever get tired of hearing people tell you they won’t get the flu shot because it made them sick?  Or people who say they’re really healthy so they don’t need it, or it doesn’t work anyway so why bother?

These are just a few of the many things pharmacists will hear from their patients over the coming few months.  Talking with patients who see myths regarding vaccines as fact is one of the most challenging aspects of vaccination.

It always surprises me when I see patients in my travel clinic, their willingness to get vaccines costing hundreds of dollars for rare diseases but will not accept the free vaccination for influenza.  Every one of these patients are more likely to encounter influenza than Japanese Encephalitis or even Hepatitis A.

A couple of years ago I started to change how I approach people regarding influenza vaccination.  Whether it be patients refusing the vaccine or those who come in for vaccination somewhat reluctantly, I realized that by providing a few pieces of scientific fact, in language they can relate to, vastly increased the uptake and acceptance of flu shots.

Here are my top 5 points to increase patient uptake of flu shots:

1-Explain what it is. Make a point of telling patients you are protecting them from a “serious lung infection”. This infection, influenza, gives you a high fever, likely a cough and makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.  It comes on fast and you will likely be sick for at least a week.  The danger with influenza is it leaves your lungs vulnerable and pneumonia can set in, or it makes medical conditions critically worse.  This is what puts people in the hospital and causes death.

2-Explain what it is not.  It is essential to tell patients what the flu shot is NOT protecting them from.  My usual spiel goes something like, “This shot does not protect you from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, “stomach flu”, colds or sinus infections.  Those are all caused by other viruses that spread person to person.  You can, and likely will, get some of those illnesses this winter.”  I give this information even as I am giving the shot to people who ask for it.  This helps to prevent the person who got the stomach flu a few days later from blaming it on the shot.

3-Take away the mystery. Vaccine are not easily understood by the general public.  Using imagery is a great way to help people understand what vaccines do.  “I am giving you a killed off version of the virus.  Your body recognizes it as an invader, even though it is dead, and makes antibodies to protect you against the virus.  Antibodies fit like puzzle pieces on the virus.  If you get sick with the real thing, those antibodies will fit on the virus and get rid of it before it makes you sick.” Simply put, vaccines cause a natural immune response in the body, making the immune system “stronger” against this particular virus.

This also helps to explain antigenic shift to a patient and why they need to get the vaccine every year.  The virus “changes its shape” and the antibody will not “fit any more”.

It also explains how sometimes the vaccine is not a good match.  I tell patients that science is not perfect.  Experts do their best at matching the circulating strains.  But whether it is a 20% match or an 80% match, 20% protection is better than no protection given the extremely low risk of vaccination and the high risk in getting influenza.  Which brings me to my next point.

4-Give a personal example if you have one. If it is suitable, share a personal story of someone you know who encountered influenza and suffered from its consequences.  My neighbor and good friend, a perfectly healthy 40-year old mom of two boys, was on life support for over a month and nearly lost her life from influenza.  She is lucky to be alive, though she lost her voice permanently from the prolonged intubation and her lungs are irreversibly damaged.  If you don’t have a story, feel free to share this one.  Her name is Jocelyn and she has given me permission to share with anyone who will listen. 

5-Express empathy and Roll with Resistance. I often say, “It’s my job to present to you the science and facts so that you can make an informed decision.”  In the end, it is the patient’s choice, but I want to ensure I’ve done my best to help them make an informed decision based on facts.

When a patient tells me they don’t get the flu shot, I always ask them why.  This helps me pinpoint what type of information to provide.  For example, if refusal is because it “made them sick”, I want to know “what kind of sick.”  Often I hear that they had the “stomach flu” or a winter full of bad colds.  Of course, those illnesses have nothing to do with influenza so I can address that gap in knowledge at that time.  If they say they don’t “believe in it” or they think they don’t need it, I use open ended questions to ascertain why they feel that way.

In expressing empathy, understanding and then providing facts in patient language, we can go a long way in increasing vaccination rates and ultimately the health of our patients and our community.

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