Physicians discuss their COVID-19 vaccine choices, and how to convince patients to become vaccinated.
While recent media headlines decry a low rate of acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine among healthcare workers, they fail to mention one important exception: physicians. Across the country, doctors lining up in droves to roll up their sleeves, with many physicians running the same gauntlet as their patients in an effort to be vaccinated.These same doctors are concerned that media reports emphasizing low vaccine rates may have a negative impact on patients and want to make it clear: doctors are overwhelmingly accepting of COVID-19 vaccines for themselves and their family members.
“It’s not physicians who are declining the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Marcus Bryner, MD, a radiologist in Grant’s Pass, OR.“Every physician I know at our hospital has received the vaccine or is scheduled for it. The problem is the rest of the clinical staff—nurses and x-ray technicians. Probably half of our non-physician staff are skeptical and declining the vaccine.”
George Davis, MD, an emergency physician in Texas says that all of the emergency physicians at his hospital except one has received their COVID-19 vaccine, compared with about 60% of the nursing staff.“And now the last doctor just told me he is going to get his,” says Davis.
Allergist and immunologist Purvi Parikh, MD served as an investigator in COVID-19 vaccine trials. She agrees that physicians have been very accepting of the vaccine. “I don’t know a single physician who turned it down, including in my own practice,” says Parikh, who notes that the highest number of vaccine refusers in her practice have been nurses.
Marsha Taylor, MD, a family physician in Charlottesville, VA, was surprised when she saw media reports portraying rates of vaccine acceptance as low as 50% among healthcare workers. “I kept seeing a media portrayal of skepticism among health experts of the vaccine. But based on what I was seeing in my own clinic, it was not the health experts—physicians—but clinical staff that were more hesitant.” To confirm her suspicion that it was not physicians who were declining the vaccine, Taylor posted a poll on two large physician-only Facebook pages. Out of nearly 3,000 physician respondents, 95% said that they had either already received or planned to receive their COVID-19 vaccine. “This doesn’t match the reporting in the media,” says Taylor, who is concerned that the public is being misled by polls that lump healthcare workers into one category.
Perhaps one of the reasons that physicians are more accepting of the vaccine is a greater understanding of the scientific background behind its development.For example, four Kansas health department nurses refused to administer the COVID-19 vaccine because they felt uncomfortable with “a new technology we’ve never seen before.” But many physicians point out that mRNA vaccine technology has been well-established over time. Gina Leoni, MD, a family physician in Los Angeles felt comfortable taking the vaccine after she studied its development. Now she takes the time to explain the science to her patients. “I’ve been surprised by what has been left out of the mainstream media. For example, that there is no actual COVID-19 virus in the vaccine, or that the mRNA vaccine technology is not new—it started in the 1990s.”
Another reason that physicians are highly accepting of the vaccine may relate to their experiences caring for patients infected with the COVID virus. Mary Margaret Clapp, MD, a family physician in Tuscaloosa, AL says, “During the worst part of the pandemic I spent months living on little sleep trying to keep my patients safe. Getting vaccinated is the least I can do to support my colleagues, decrease the risk to my patients, and decrease the reservoir of this virus.”
Physicians are also influenced by seeing respected colleagues step up to be vaccinated. Terence Alost, MD, an emergency physician in Louisiana, says that he noticed hesitancy in a few of his co-workers until they saw their fellow physicians get vaccinated. “The medicine service chief got her shot early on and let all the other docs and employees know. Once that happened, I haven’t heard of seen any physicians refuse the shot at all.”
Paul Dorio, MD, a radiologist in Naples, FL says that it is important for physicians to speak out about receiving the vaccine—and for the media to publicize high acceptance rates by physicians rather than emphasizing lower acceptance from healthcare workers in general. “Fears and doubts are so much easier to sow than confidence and understanding.”
One way that physicians can encourage vaccination is by using social media and local media relationships. Marcus Bryner, MD, who participated in the Moderna vaccine trial, says that his posts about the vaccine attracted the attention of the local press, and resulted in a front-page newspaper feature. Other physicians are posting vaccine selfies using the hashtag #ThisisOurShot.
But physicians can make an even bigger impact by sharing their decision to receive the vaccine with patients and staff. Olevia Metry, MD, a family physician in Hoboken, New Jersey took the time to sit down with her nursing staff over several lunches to answer their questions and concerns about the vaccine. “There is so much fear and misinformation,” says Metry. “I’m very proud to say that after these counseling sessions, my entire staff received their vaccines.”
With many patients concerned about vaccine risk in pregnancy or the impact on future fertility, physicians who specialize in obstetrics are especially well-placed to encourage patients. Torre Halscott MD MS, a maternal-fetal medicine and critical care physician was the co-author for COVID-19 in pregnancy and is a vocal supporter of the vaccine. “I’m proudly and gratefully vaccinated, and I ardently encourage everyone to join us. I truly believe that it’s the best, quickest and most effective way to get back to our lives safely.”
Tina Adkins, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Jacksonville, FL, was part of the Moderna vaccine trial, and she urges her patients to take the vaccine. “The fertility concerns are a social media conspiracy theory,” says Adkins, noting that some women in the vaccine studies became pregnant during the trial period. “We know that pregnant women are at increased risk of severe disease from COVID. The risks from the vaccine are less than the risk of COVID, so, the risk/benefit ratio favors vaccination.”
Sometimes the most important role of a physician is to lead by example. And physicians are stepping up to show the public that they believe in COVID-19 vaccination.
Rebekah Bernard, MD is a family physician in Fort Myers, FL and the co-author of the book Patients at Risk: The Rise of the Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant in Healthcare.