The Patient Journey to COVID-19 Vaccination

By Rob Duboff and Lori Holmes

We were fortunate to participate in a panel last week titled “The Evolution of the Patient Journey — Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy,” put together by the Advertising Research Foundation’s newly formed Pharma Council.  The topic was – essentially – how to persuade those who are “hesitant” about getting vaccinated for COVID-19, but not a definite resister.

The full roster of speakers included:

  • Robert Duboff, Hawk Partners (moderator)
  • Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, FACP, University of New Mexico
  • Kelly Lundquist, Havas Media
  • Charysse Nunez, The Ad Council
  • Mitesh Patel, MD, MBA, Penn/Wharton

In this post, we summarize conclusions based on our own extensive experience with vaccine marketing.

Fluctuating sentiment towards vaccination.

The dramatic fluctuations in social media tracking done by Havas Media, the situation for a large group who are “hesitant” (38 percent of the sample plus the 13 percent who are termed “resistant”) is still fluid. Thus, the battle to reach herd immunity is far from over.

The politicization of vaccines.

Reactions to the COVID vaccine are quite different from those to other vaccines because of the political tint which has seemed to push resistance to an all-time high, and the fact that these vaccines seem rushed adds a seemingly rational concern. In addition, there is significant distrust of the economic motives behind vaccine development, and it being leveraged to get our economy back up and running.

Doctors are the best source of influence.

The speakers agreed – and we concur – that personal doctors are the best source of influence, yet they have been taken out of the equation. Though it was agreed that our state and local governments have given lip service to “following the doctors or science,” there is no concerted effort we have seen to inform all healthcare practitioners (HCPs) of the latest research and/or to urge them to reach out to their patients to encourage them to get vaccinated.

At the same time, the speakers disagreed a bit on the role of science or “facts.”  We side with those who believe that appealing to “facts” or “science” alone is not effective for this hesitant group, especially since expert advice has varied during the pandemic.

Communication requires empathy.

The group did agree that mass communication has been unconvincing as most of it has been assertive and not at all empathetic.  Effective persuasion requires looking for common ground – which comparts with the recent Ad Council study on COVID vaccination messaging.  Facts are, of course, fine when everyone agrees on these facts; but many decisions turn on feelings or faith.  Faith, in particular, is more prevalent in times of uncertainty when people feel out of control.

Exploit optimism and normalcy biases.

So, in addition to activating HCPs, we need to exploit the optimism and normalcy biases that drive many to want to return to normalcy and suggest that each of us now has the power and control to return to our previous way of life sooner rather than later.

Connect with Rob Duboff and Lori Holmes to further explore the evolution of the patient journey to COVID-19 vaccination.