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Moving the needle: how marketing tools and tactics can drive vaccination rates

by Lee Fraser

September 29, 2021

For millions of Americans, the summer of 2021 appeared to bring on a vaccination vacation, during which they deferred or delayed — but did not reject — obtaining protection from Covid-19.

During the first few weeks of summer vacation, the seven-day moving average of total daily doses bottomed out on July 8, 2021, with 437,265 doses administered. This was the lowest average in more than six months. As summer passed, however, vaccination rates rebounded daily. On August 20, the CDC reported that 1,041,212 doses were administered, the first million-dose day since June 11.

There is a variety of possible reasons for this upsurge in vaccinations: concerns about the Delta variant, schools and offices reopening, vaccine mandates. The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine on August 23 also increased vaccine confidence among some reluctant populations. Booster shots may have played a part too: on August 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorizations for both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines to allow for an additional dose in certain immunocompromised individuals.

Understanding the reasons behind a vaccine vacation is essential to boosting vaccination rates and improving community resilience. So what are the lessons we can learn about the vaccine vacation and the impact on vaccination rates moving forward?

Make access frictionless

America needs to make vaccine access completely frictionless. There is more than just an information gap between the educated and the misinformed. There is an infrastructure and simplicity gap that keeps people who want the vaccine from knowing how to get it.

For example, a subset of the unvaccinated are not people who hold ideological or misinformed objections to the vaccine, but who have merely postponed or put off receiving one. Judging a vaccine shot as low-reward and high-effort, this category may have believed that case reductions early on in the summer meant that the risk of Covid-19 had disappeared, rendering a personal vaccination unnecessary. By the time they were ready to receive one, the demobilization of vaccine locations and Covid-19 testing sites had inadvertently created obstacles to these late-comers. They suddenly had less access to the vaccine and more enjoyable or more important things to do than seek one out.

No one is exempt from this kind of friction. I am a perfect example. Most years, I get my flu shot at a pop-up clinic at Chicago O’Hare airport. An ordinary year will see me fly often for business, so while I’m passing time, it makes sense to get my shot. It is totally frictionless. Why wouldn’t I take a quick minute to look out for my health? But in 2020, I didn’t fly for business, so I didn’t visit the airport. I didn’t visit the airport, so I didn’t get my flu shot. Nothing about me had changed; I hadn’t suddenly become an anti-vaxxer with different ideological opinions. What changed was the amount of effort needed to get a vaccine, and the effort needed to find an alternative vaccination site.

Meet people where they are

The technological divide is an additional barrier to access – and one that common gathering places, such as churches, can help people overcome. One example from media reports is the story of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. Worship services have been conducted online since the pandemic began, while the church sanctuary has been repurposed as a vaccination location.

“[People] don’t have to worry about internet access or whether a link works or know how to use technology. You just call the church and we take care of it from there,” said Reverend Craig Harcum.

Eliminating this access barrier ensures that an entire subset of people is able to easily get vaccinated by relying on a trusted, common, communal gathering place, the church.

Dr. Basim Khan manages the vaccine program at the church on behalf of a local public health organization, Neighborhood Health of Arlington County. “There are two reasons [this approach] works. We’re enlisting trusted messengers [… and] making the process easy. They don’t have to sign up on an online portal,” said Dr. Khan.

Appointments available at the church are booked through outreach and referrals are done by church leadership and staff. The church then relays that info to Neighborhood Health, and appointments are typically scheduled within just a few days. “It takes a lot of the barriers away from the process,” said Dr. Khan. “We have to make the vaccine available to them, and that’s what we're doing through this method.”

Patience and transparency create trust

As misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine abounds and the spread of the Delta variant increases, addressing growing vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. is essential to saving lives. There are still millions of unvaccinated Americans. From minority communities with a legitimate distrust of the medical establishment, to free-spirited bohemians avoiding medicine; from young people who don’t see the danger of the virus, to QAnon conspiracy theorists, the unvaccinated population is anything but homogenous. Understanding their nuanced concerns is a key step to persuading them to get vaccinated.

This understanding must be reciprocal. This is the first time in human history where we’ve been able to watch the scientific method unfold in real time, leaving many frustrated and misinformed at the changing recommendations and guidelines throughout the pandemic. Those of us who communicate health information for a living have an obligation to help Americans understand that science is the process of finding the truth, which means that no conclusions are ever final. Healthy skepticism is vital to moving science forward, but unhealthy denial can be lethal.

The basis of medical science is the conservative application of data for the benefit of human health. To improve the health of unvaccinated populations, we must meet them where they are, on their own terms and in their own environments. We have to earn their trust, encourage their patience, and bolster frictionless access to lifesaving vaccines. In doing so, we will combat ignorance, promote understanding and protect our public health.

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COVID-19
pandemic
healthcare marketing
healthcare communications