Home > Expert Insights, Get Involved, Preventable Diseases, Vaccine Advocacy > Physicians Can Help Influence Vaccine Opinions By Engaging Patients on Social Media

Physicians Can Help Influence Vaccine Opinions By Engaging Patients on Social Media

posterDr. John Merrill-Steskal has spent 22 years as a Family Medicine Physician.  He believes that doctors can help promote healthy behaviors by becoming more engaged on social media. Throughout the past year, in an effort to help shape public perception on a variety of medical topics such as vaccines, Dr. Merrill-Steskal has begun hosting a monthly radio show,  blogging at Triple Espresso MD, and contributing guest posts on other blogs such as KevinMD.  We welcome his latest contribution:

Vaccine hesitancy: It’s time to go on offense

by John Merrill-Steskal, MD

The term “vaccine hesitancy” is a relatively recent term in medicine, a term used to describe patients who are worried about the safety, efficacy, or necessity of receiving immunizations. Vaccines are safe and have a proven track record of saving lives. As a result, doctors have been caught somewhat off guard by the notion that anyone would have second thoughts about the benefits of immunization.

Recommendations commonly publicized on how to respond to the vaccine hesitant patient are admirable, and have a calm, respectful tone.  For example, doctors are encouraged to engage patients and respond to their concerns, while giving a clear message to recommend vaccination. Since treating patients disrespectfully or with disdain will only serve to alienate them further, being respectful, calm, and clear in our communication is our best chance at tipping the scales in favor of vaccination

The problem with this approach, however, is that physicians are on the defensive before a discussion even begins. And as in sports, a good defense without an offense will not win the game. Because of where we talk to patients, doctors are at a critical disadvantage: the physical place in which physicians engage patients about vaccines is typically the exam room, and by the time patients have arrived to the clinic they may well have already formed their opinions about vaccines.

As a result, physicians are forced to respond and react to concerns, and must attempt to reclaim ground that has already been lost. In other words, because of the nature of where physicians physically interact with and engage patients, we are by default always on the defensive as we work to dispel myths and misinformation regarding vaccine safety or efficacy.

To make a true difference on vaccine hesitancy, I think doctors must engage patients where the dialog is happening in real time: in the world of social media.

Every day patients acquire information, discuss concerns, and formulate opinions within the realm of social media.  By the time a patient enters the exam room, their mind may already be made up about vaccines. While our discussions with individual patients in exam rooms will always be important, it is becoming equally important for physicians to enter the dialog where it is being created, before the patient arrives at the clinic. Physicians need to pay attention to what patients are talking about on social media, and need to be a part of that dialog.  If we don’t, we will always be on the defensive.

If we are to advance vaccination, physicians must leave the safety of the exam room and meet patients where their opinions are being created.  Start a blog, tweet an opinion grounded in science, or engage patients online; by having a stronger voice in social media, doctors have the opportunity to be more influential in shaping opinions before our patients have become “hesitant“.

It is time to go on the offensive, and is the only way we will win the game.


Dr. Merrill-Steskal is joined by a guest on his monthly radio show.


Dr. John Merrill-Steskal has recently been accepted to the 2016 American Academy of Family Physicians Vaccine Science Fellowship, an elite fellowship program which only accepts two providers per year.  We look forward to learning more about his work in the area of immunization education and we suggest readers also check out his other immunization related blog posts such as Past and Present: Rubella and Zika and Can the anti-vaccine movement be convinced with more positive messages?  

You can follow him on Twitter @MerrillSteskal.

Every Child By Two (host of the Shot of Prevention blog) welcomes guest blog posts on a variety of vaccine related issues.  The views and opinions expressed in these guest posts do not necessarily represent the views of the Every Child By Two organization.
  1. Eve Switzer, MD, FAAP
    September 8, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you for this! I agree with you 1000%. I’d love to see the AAP and the AAFP partner together in seeing this on-the-ground network develop to engage parents on social media about vaccine hesitancy.


  2. cphickie
    September 11, 2016 at 8:45 am

    I’d love to see the the AAP actually get *serious* on vaccines like the AAFP is, instead of pretending to be serious by lecturing the AMA (at the annual AMA convention in 2015) on leaving “loopholes” for Bob Sears when the AAP leaves the biggest “loophole” of all by letting Bob Sears, MD, *FAAP*, remain an FAAP despite all the harm he has done to vaccine infrastructure and public health in the US. Instead the AAP won’t allow me to comment about Sears on their “Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy” position paper because the AAP is cowardly. Yes, cowardly. Well, the AAP is going to look mighty cowardly if the Medical Board of California takes the medical license of Robert Sears (as they are poised to do) before the AAP does anything about Sears. I’m glad the AAFP at least has their head on straight concerning vaccines. I’m damned sick of parents being scared out of vaccinating by Robert Sears, MD, FAAP and having *nothing* from the AAP saying Sears is the menace to public health that he is. Grow a pair, AAP.


  3. Shirley Mayer
    December 22, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Yesterday we met with my kids new pediatrician. Well my son is 8 months and has had no shots besides vitamin K at birth. When we got in to the office the nurse looked at his chart and said “oh looks like he will be receiving 16 vaccines today”.
    Wow right?
    I told her we do not and will not be vaccinating as I’ve had problems and my 2 year old had nothing but problems after her vaccines. She walked out.
    I met with the doctor and explained it to her and her response was unbelievable. She told me that ‘vaccines do not have side effects’ and that more babies die from not being vaxxed than having their shots.
    A few minutes later the nurse came in again but had 9 syringes full of the 16 vaccines mixed. She asked me where I wanted her to stick him and again I said we aren’t doing vaccines. She goes, ‘I hope you know your son is going to die. ‘
    Needless to say, my kids are never going back! Posting to show how bad it is getting here in California!”
    Her child will “die” without known-to-be-toxic vaccines?!! Most developed countries don’t vaccinate nearly as much as the US — no epidemics of children dying on the streets. Believe me, we would hear about it if there were.
    And ‘no side effects?!!’ There are many side effects listed on the vaccine product inserts, including brain swelling, seizures, SIDs, gut issues, kidney issues, sudden death, type-1 diabetes, paralysis, lupus…basically everything you can think of is on at least one insert.
    I wish this was uncommon. But This is nearly the exact same story as I have when bringing my 6mo old back to California from Europe — vaccine free. They wanted to ‘catch him up’ and the doctor pushed a dozen vaccines. I told him I would do my own research first and he told me he was the doctor, he had done the research. I told him: “I Used to work for Merck, I know where you get your “research” from, I’ll do my own thanks.” He stormed out of the room. I did the scientific research and was very disturbed. My son is vaccine FREE at 6yo and extremely healthy. Never been on antibiotics, hardly sick, super strong and tall. No allergies, no chronic issues.
    This is NOT ok — all pharmaceutical products have side effects and the choice should be made by parents — not those profiting off of vaccines.
    Fear-mongering to protect the system that pays their bills. One of these days, people will realize that doctors and hospitals are becoming like used-car salesmen for Pharma.


  4. Lawrence
    December 22, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    No doctor would give 16 vaccines in a single visit, so I call BS.

    Also, the US vaccine schedule is no more or less than what you find in all other developed nations.

    N=1 stories mean nothing.


  5. Shirley Mayer
    December 23, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Unfortunately and unbelievably, it is the truth.


  6. Chris
    December 23, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Why should we believe you? Perhaps you should put up some citations by reputable qualified researchers to support your many claims, because all we see is an evidence free rant.


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