Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Winter 2021

I Know the Vaccine is Important but How Do I Talk to My Patients about It? Evidence-Based Ways to Encourage COVID Vaccines and Masking

Jocelyn E. Remmert, PhD and Jennifer S. Funderburk, PhD; Integrated Primary Care SIG

Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has become more widely available, healthcare professionals such as primary care providers and teams will be at the forefront of encouraging and talking to reluctant patients about it. Due to the highly politicized nature of COVID-19, these conversations can be difficult. That’s why we’ve worked with expert behavioral researchers in communication, behavioral medicine, decision making, and health equity to put together a few key tips to use in your regular clinical practice.

First and foremost, we encourage you to take five minutes to have those conversations with patients. It is tempting to avoid these conversations due to the sensitive nature of the topic, but research shows that healthcare providers are trusted individuals to patients and your voice matters more than you likely think it does.1

Some important evidence-based communication tips based on other research include:

  • Start by talking to patients about the vaccine like you would any other, if it's discussed as a part of regular medical care, many patients will agree without additional discussion: “When would you like to schedule your COVID-19 vaccine?”
  • If you’re short on time (and who isn’t these days?), choose to spend the time you do have discussing the vaccine with community leaders (e.g., pastors, police officers, teachers), as they can influence their larger community.2,3
  • If there are hesitancies or skepticism, LISTEN. It may be frustrating, but the most important piece of communication is making the patient feel understood.4
  • If the person doesn’t understand why masking in large public areas and the vaccine is needed, consider using a metaphor of slices of Swiss cheese stacked. “Each slice of cheese is one layer of protection, like wearing a mask, but each slice has holes. If you stack them, you get the best protection.”

Some example statements you can use in different situations:

  • If a patient shares misinformation, ask permission and be non-judgmental:
    • “Is it OK if I share some additional information about how I understand the evidence to help you make your decision? It’s important to me to that my patients have all the information they need to make the right decision for them.”
  • If your patient is anxious or skeptical, provide your opinion while acknowledging it is the patient’s decision:
    • “I was also worried about this new COVID-19 vaccine/shot, so I read about what the doctors have done. While it’s a new vaccine/shot, it went through the same hoops as other medications I give you, and I can assure you it is safe and it works. I have seen people with COVID-19, and believe me, it is not something you want. My job is to help you stay healthy. Like other medications I give you, I believe this vaccine/shot is important for your health. However, the decision is up to you.”


Need more ideas? Want to share with your coworkers? Our resource has even more statements and handouts to share with patients. Let’s all work together to help our communities heal from COVID-19.



  1. Pearson SD, Raeke LH. Patients’ trust in physicians: many theories, few measures, and little data. J Gen Intern Med. 2000;15(7):509-513. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2000.11002.x
  2. Liljas AEM, Walters K, Jovicic A, et al. Strategies to improve engagement of “hard to reach” older people in research on health promotion: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2017;17(1):349. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4241-8
  3. Winkfield KM, Regnante JM, Miller-Sonet E, González ET, Freund KM, Doykos PM. Development of an Actionable Framework to Address Cancer Care Disparities in Medically Underserved Populations in the United States: Expert Roundtable Recommendations. JCO Oncology Practice. 2021;17(3):e278-e293. doi:10.1200/OP.20.00630
  4. Brewer NT, Hall ME, Malo TL, Gilkey MB, Quinn B, Lathren C. Announcements Versus Conversations to Improve HPV Vaccination Coverage: A Randomized Trial. Pediatrics. 2017;139(1):e20161764. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-176