How Empathy Can Help Dispel COVID Vaccine Misinformation

Shirlene Obuobi, MD


November 09, 2021

Being a clinician requires a strong set of communication skills. One of the greatest communication challenges arises when patients generate their own differentials for their symptoms.

Sometimes, their perusals through Google, medical forums, and, of course, WebMD, bear reasonable thoughts and questions about their potential diagnoses. Other times, they can miss the mark, forcing us to adopt a more delicate communication strategy. Completely shooting down a theory as unrealistic can be perceived as dismissive or even condescending. Entertaining it may lend it credibility that it doesn't quite deserve, or even come across as acquiescence.

Since the COVID vaccine became readily available, I've heard patients attribute every symptom under the sun to it, from unrelenting fatigue shortly after receiving it (definitely likely) to higher alcohol tolerance 9 months later (a little less likely).

Figure 1.

I understand why this happens: Misinformation about the vaccine is rampant. Data about long-term effects aren't yet available, and so patients and clinicians must rely on small case reports and anecdotes. Therefore, some of my usual strategies for talking about misinformation — which often involves walking through the ways my management is informed by up-to-date data — aren't exactly applicable.

Figure 2.

Still, I've tried to start conversations like this from a position of empathy. My patients chose to protect themselves and their community from COVID-19 by injecting what, to them, may be an unknown substance into their bodies. I choose not to immediately dismiss claims specifically about vaccine side effects.

Figure 3.

Instead, I examine the patient, discuss any potential causes that are more likely and then try to explain why I'm not (or am) concerned. Sometimes, this goes nowhere. But often, just taking a few additional minutes to discuss those concerns can be reassuring to a patient. (There is, of course, the expectation that physicians can somehow bring time to a standstill while they spend "just a few more minutes" on an infinite list of topics, but that will be a discussion for another day.)

What strategies do you use to "disagree" with your patients? Which ones work and which ones don't?

Shirlene Obuobi, MD, is a cardiology fellow based in Chicago, an author, and a devoted cat mom.


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