With about 700 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered across the globe, the return to (relative) normalcy, in many parts of the world, is starting to feel closer and closer. The horrors of the pandemic created urgency, ultimately yielding the Emergency Use Authorization of multiple vaccines. Rollout-related decisions have been COVID-19-specific. There are, however, many lessons we can learn from them to empower all of our work as healthcare communicators.

In particular, there’s a lot to glean from the significant vaccine hesitancy and how leaders are working through it. So much of it comes down to: How do we motivate people to make the best health decisions for them?

Syneos Health Managing Director Kathleen Starr, PhD, highlights the fact that we all make decisions based on what feels familiar. The rule of thumb is: If it feels familiar, it’s probably okay. It’s crucial to identify how any medication might challenge people’s perceptions of what’s normal. “The way these vaccines were developed absolutely went against what many people would expect,” Starr stays. “All the cues say it’s risky: it came to market so fast; no one can say for sure if we will need boosters; and you have to be monitored for 15 minutes after you receive it.”

For these and other reasons, “A lot of people want to wait until they know a lot of other people who have gotten it. They need their own anecdotal data. They’re collecting their own real-world evidence via mental tallies of people they know who got the vaccine and what their reactions were.” But while perceptions get in the way of some people’s vaccination decisions, it’s often a different equation with their parents: “The same people sitting on the fence are eager to get their parents vaccinated—because the risk-benefit equation is different there, because we’ve all heard consistently how vulnerable they are.” The point is that doing something “out of the ordinary” doesn’t necessarily make people closed to the idea of opting in. They just might need the right nudge. 

A powerful way to get people over the fence is through capturing “descriptive norms,” Starr says. “Show people getting vaccinated so it looks like it isn’t unusual, so it feels more familiar. Provide more context. Provide accessible detail around technical aspects. Drive home the importance of real-world data and how everyone benefits from it.” 

Speaking about her experience launching other vaccines, Keri McDonough, Advocacy and Patient Relations Lead at Syneos Health, said that some widely used vaccines “went the state-mandate route. And I think some of them did that too fast. They tried to get it mandated for schools, and then someone like a governor opposed it, so it immediately became politicized. COVID-19 and the vaccine have been politicized, too, and rollout is suffering because of that.”

Understanding the precise nature of that politicization will be key here. “We need to understand why 49% of conservative men aren’t getting the vaccine,” McDonough explains. “Is it because they believe they’re so strong they don’t need it? Because they don’t want to compromise their understanding of freedom? We have to know what it is in order to communicate around it.”

To start, “as much as possible, let’s identify allies and fortify their resources,” McDonough says. “And think about influencers: even big names might not be compelling regionally. Maybe you can activate micro-celebrities within certain communities.”

Starr picks up on this point, mentioning the social psychology principle of construal-level theory, which states that the closer something is to a person, physically or socially, the more concretely they’ll think about it. By contrast, the farther something is from someone, the more abstractly they’ll think about it and the harder it’ll be for them to connect to it. “Let’s keep that in mind when we advance messages about this vaccine and other healthcare products. Any approach has to be highly regionalized. For someone on the fence, stories about vaccine acceptance on a national level will be less motivating than hearing about positive impact vaccine having in their backyard.” We’re not necessarily up against an intractable attitude problem. It’s about being contextually relevant, correcting misinterpretations, and making it feel normal. 

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.