GP input key to vaccine uptake for more than 60% of Australians

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

23/02/2021 4:32:47 PM

General practice will play a leading role in addressing COVID vaccination hesitancy and attempts at ‘vaccine shopping’.

A GP talking with a patient.
Professor Kirsten McCaffery says GPs are trusted members of the community, and have a ‘hugely influential role’ when it comes to vaccine uptake.

For Melbourne GP Dr Magdalena Simonis, ‘vaccine shopping’ is a real and increasing concern.
‘Almost every day, I’ve had a case where a person has said, “I know that the Pfizer vaccine is more effective – I want that one”,’ she told newsGP.
‘When I say, “You’re most likely going to get AstraZeneca because you’re not in any of the high risk groups”, they’ve insisted that they want to be able to access the Pfizer vaccine by paying for it.’
Dr Simonis is among a growing number of GPs across Australia who have been fielding patient queries in the lead up to, and now during, the COVID vaccine rollout – from efficacy rates and hesitancy, to attempts at vaccine shopping.
Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) also shows some hesitancy within the community;  while 73% of Australians would be willing to get a COVID vaccine if it is recommended to them, only 58% will try to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.
The most common influential factors are whether the vaccine has been in use for a long time with no serious side-effects (67%), and whether it has been recommended by their GP or another healthcare professional (61%).
Professor Kirsten McCaffery, a health literacy researcher at the University of Sydney, told newsGP it is well-known that GPs have a ‘hugely influential role’.
‘They’re highly trusted members of the community, so we must never underestimate their role and influence,’ she said.
What’s key, Professor McCaffery says, is that GPs are transparent about any known side effects that may follow vaccination.
‘Often practitioners are a bit anxious to talk about those things. For instance in a small number [of cases] people may experience headaches, they may have chills after their vaccination,’ she said.
‘But it’s important to talk to people about that, and be open and honest about it.
‘What we know from the research, is that we need to be non-judgmental and respectful of people who are hesitant and have questions about the vaccine, and give people time to think about it, answer their questions, be responsive to their needs, and not make them feel bad for questioning or being uncertain.’
The ABS data found men (76%) are more likely than women (71%) to agree to vaccination, as are people aged 65 years and over (83%) compared to those aged 18–64 years (71%).
Professor McCaffery says Australia has the benefit of looking to other countries, such as the UK, where the vaccination program has been underway since 8 December – with uptake currently exceeding government expectations.
Professor McCaffery in part attributes the high uptake to successful social media campaigns, such as a YouTube video featuring singer Elton John and actor Michael Caine.
‘It’s using humour [and] really trusted, prominent figures in the UK to talk about vaccination,’ she said.
‘There’s also a wonderful YouTube video produced by JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] … which uses fantastic animation to explain to people exactly how the vaccine works.
‘This is what we need to do in Australia. We need to talk to people as adults about the vaccine and how it works, what it does, what they can expect, and also about how it will help the community get back to the lives we knew before COVID.’
In Australia, the Federal Government launched a $24 million campaign on 27 January to help address any hesitancy, featuring high-profile health experts such as Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) boss Adjunct Professor John Skerritt.
While it is not known whether the campaign will prove effective, the experience abroad shows the importance of targeting culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
The OpenSafely study in the UK found that as of 11 February, 86% of caucasian people aged 70–79 had been vaccinated, with a drop in uptake among Black (55%), mixed heritage (68%) and South Asian (73%) people.
Similarly in Israel, while uptake has been considerably high, questions remain over whether their campaign will be enough to address hesitancy among cultural minorities.
Dr Simonis is endeavouring to support GPs in this area, by providing answers to frequently asked questions in a simple, easy-to-read format.
However, if a patient is particularly resistant, Professor McCaffery says it is important for GPs to recognise when efforts may fall on deaf ears.
‘We know that it’s probably better not to waste time on people who are very strongly opposed to vaccines because that can just cause antagonism, and it doesn’t actually make a difference,’ she said.
‘Instead, [we should] focus on the people who are hesitant, who have questions and concerns, and respond to those questions and concerns respectfully.
‘Of course, we know what happened with Facebook … so we need to really guide people to good quality information about vaccination and keep them away from nefarious misinformation.’
While the Government attracted some criticism for rolling out its vaccination program months after other countries, Professor McCaffery believes the timing may in fact assist Australia’s vaccination efforts.
‘This has been a really wise decision because we can now say that millions upon millions of people across the world have been vaccinated, and we know that this has been done safely,’ she said.
‘People can see that vast numbers of people across the globe have had this vaccination and also we can reassure them that we’ve got surveillance processes in place to ensure that the vaccine rollout in Australia is safe.
‘We also do know that hesitancy declines as people see their friends and their family get vaccinated, and get vaccinated without any problems.
‘So far the Government has done a good job on COVID, so we’re in a good place.’
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