Between August and September 2022, researchers at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, surveyed nearly 1,500 parents of 6- to 18-year-olds about recent discussions with health care professionals over childhood vaccines. The survey found that more than one in seven parents did not talk about vaccines with their child’s regular physician or health care professional in the past two years, with some parents putting off or missing health care visits for their children entirely so they could avoid the subject.
Overall, more than 80% of parents said they had talked with their child’s physician about vaccines required for school. However, fewer parents talked about vaccines for influenza (68%) or COVID-19 (57%), and 15% said they did not have any discussions about vaccines with their child’s regular clinician.
When parents did talk with a health care professional about vaccines, most said the experience was positive. More than 80% of these parents said the clinician was open to their questions and concerns, and more than 70% said they received information that was helpful in making a decision about vaccination.
In describing their vaccination decisions, 89% of parents said that their child received the vaccines required to attend school, while 57% said their child received a vaccine for influenza or COVID-19.
The poll also found that just over one-fourth of parents reported difficulties in getting vaccines for their children, such as scheduling problems, out-of-stock vaccines, or having to go to another location.
Finally, the survey reported that 6% of parents chose not to have their children receive any vaccines; of these, 43% reported not talking about vaccines with any health care professional in the past two years. Another 3% of parents said they delayed or entirely skipped a health care visit for their child to avoid talking about vaccines.
“These results remind me of the opportunities to educate parents every time we see their child, and to set aside time and effort in fielding concerns about vaccines,” said Erin Corriveau, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine & Community Health and Population Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. “It also reminds me of the importance of having all vaccines available and ready for administration when patients come into the office. We should take every opportunity to educate and vaccinate at both well-child checkups and episodic sick visits. It is our responsibility as doctors to open up conversations with parents and kids about important disease prevention measures such as vaccines.”
Corriveau also expressed concerns about the negative impacts of parents not discussing vaccines and delaying or skipping visits — not just for vaccinations, but for their children’s overall health.
“I worry that if conversations about vaccines are not opened at the time of visit, some parents and kids may inadvertently encounter disinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness,” she said.
“Every visit is an opportunity to ask questions about your child’s well-being,” Corriveau continued. “Vaccines are an important discussion, but also their physical and emotional development, as well. Many times when we pick up on issues early, we can intervene and set a child on track for a very bright future.”
Corriveau said it’s important for family physicians to find ways to have these conversations with parents, with trust as a key ingredient.
“I truly believe that when a family trusts that we care deeply about their well-being, they will seriously consider vaccinations,” said Corriveau. “I also think it helps to have solid scientific information for parents available in an accessible format. Lastly, we know that sometimes patience and staying in touch with a family is key. It may take a couple visits before this type of connection is made.”
Corriveau also offered advice on ways to improve the vaccination process for parents and their children.
“Have vaccines available in your office and offer them every time you see the patient, whether you’re seeing the child at a well-child check or for another issue,” she said. “If they desire vaccines from the pharmacy, health department or from our nursing colleagues, encourage them toward action and remind them that we all work together as a team to get children up to date with vaccines. And have quality information available for parents in case they would like to think more about it before consenting to vaccination.”
Vaccines and vaccine-related conversations between patients and clinicians are serious matters, and the Academy can help.
Vaccination is particularly important this year, as COVID-19 variants continue to emerge and cases of both influenza and respiratory syncytial rise across much of the country.
To help family physicians counsel parents about childhood vaccines and keep all of their patients healthy, the Academy has developed new tools and updated several existing resources.
The AAFP’s Seasonal Influenza Prevention & Control webpage has the latest recommendations and fact sheets, and features a series of resources developed in partnership with Sanofi Pasteur Inc. to foster productive influenza vaccine conversations.
Earlier this month, the Academy published two new guidance documents — one on influenza vaccination, the other on COVID-19 vaccinations for children 6 months and older — that discuss vaccine options and help FPs redress misinformation and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.
The AAFP also offers a CME series for members on improving vaccine confidence, with specific sessions on overcoming vaccine hesitancy, improving access to vaccines and similar topics.
Familydoctor.org, meanwhile, has updated three webpages (“COVID-19 Vaccines for Kids Under 5,” “Flu Myths” and “Respiratory Syncytial Virus”) with additional content from family physicians who are experts on immunization practices.
And for family physicians who are active on social media, the familydoctor.org Flu Toolkit offers step-by-step information showing FPs how to use their online presence to educate patients and their communities about influenza.