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Pharmacy flu shot 101: How pharmacists can talk to customers about the flu shot

Janice Rodden writer headshot By | September 9, 2019

Pharmacists are authorized to give influenza vaccinations in all 50 states—plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico—according to a survey by the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations. But there is wide-ranging skepticism in the United States about vaccines, particularly the flu shot.

How do you, as a provider, talk to patients in a way that reassures them of its safety and effectiveness? Start with these strategies.

Set the right tone.

Let patients know you’re actively listening and open to hearing their opinions. You’re considering what they’ve said, not just trying to convince them you’re right. You want to learn more about their position, and why they feel that way. Many people have concerns about how the flu vaccine might impact their health, or their loved one’s health. You can help alleviate their fears with the right balance of educating and listening.

Find common ground.

Conversations with people who are reluctant to get the flu shot can be difficult—especially when the fear is based on the widely held misconception that they’ve previously gotten the flu from the flu vaccine.

“Speaking with people who have misconceptions about the flu shot is very important to understand concerns that they have and work through them,” says Sandra Leal, Pharm.D., president elect of the APhA, and CEO of SinfoníaRx. “Sometimes the best example that I give is to speak about my own family and the priority I have around having them and myself first in line for the flu shot because I care about our own well-being. I wouldn’t recommend anything I wouldn’t do first.”

Ask what their concerns are, and explain the facts about the flu shot.

“The flu vaccine has a great track record. Every year millions of people receive the vaccine, and over the last 50, hundreds of millions have received the vaccine worldwide,” explains Dr. Leal. “There is extensive research that supports the safety of flu vaccines.”

Find out what your patient knows, so you can better respond to their level of understanding. Many concerns are not fact-based. The most common misconceptions, according to the Centers for Disease Control are:

  • The flu vaccine will give me the flu.
  • I don’t need the flu vaccine every year.
  • If I’m pregnant, or have another health condition, I shouldn’t get the flu shot.
  • The flu vaccine doesn’t work.
  • I might have an allergic reaction to the vaccine.
  • If I’m not vaccinated by October, it’s too late.

Once you know what’s worrying your customers, ask if you can share some information with them. Walk them through how the vaccine works, the potential benefits, and what they don’t need to worry about.

For example, Dr. Leal suggests saying: “While flu shot effectiveness can vary year to year, it is worth getting the vaccine yearly. Even if you still get the flu after being vaccinated, it can shorten the duration and the severity of the infection.”

“Getting vaccinated is also about others around you who are at high risk,” Dr. Leal says. “Vaccines lower the levels of influenza so that young children, pregnant women, the elderly or those who are immune compromised don’t have unnecessary exposure.”

When you’ve finished your explanation, ask if they have any additional questions, or what other concerns they might have. These little techniques can help keep things conversational instead of sounding like you’re giving a lecture.

RELATED: 7 Myths About the Flu Shot

Steer your responses away from hot button issues.

After the latest measles outbreak, vaccinations have become a popular—and often politicized—topic of conversation.

“Anyone who is close to someone who holds strong and opposite political views or strong religious beliefs that are exclusive of different practices—or even people who think seat belt laws are dumb—knows that differences can escalate quickly. It’s a similar situation with individuals who don’t believe in vaccination,” says Jeanette Y. Wick, assistant director of the Office of Pharmacy Professional Development at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. “Arguing is fruitless and unwise. Presenting facts in a manner that is cool and collected sometimes helps. Repeating the facts—and making sure the facts are airtight—is the best you can do.”

Mandated vaccination is a sensitive issue for some people who view required immunizations as an infringement on their rights as citizens or parents. Though the vaccine-autism connection has been thoroughly debunked, many people don’t trust the science. There are lots of conspiracy theories about how Big Pharma only encourages immunizations to profit off vaccines.

While you have strong opinions of your own, and know the facts about these issues, it’s best to sidestep these topics to avoid a blow-up.

“Ultimately, the thing that may sway someone’s opinion on vaccination is seeing that vaccination is a civic responsibility,” explains Wick. “Being vaccinated is like wearing a seat belt. If you’re in an accident and you haven’t worn a seat belt, rescue workers have to deal with the wreck and others in the car will probably be hurt, too. Remember the old ad for seat belts? ‘The life you may save is your own.’ You are also saving others when you are fully immunized.”

Highlight the benefits for different age and special health groups.

The CDC recommends the flu shot for everyone 6 months of age and up, but it’s especially important for people in certain groups—mainly those who are at high risk of flu-related complications:

  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • People with a chronic condition, like:
    • Heart disease
    • Asthma
    • Diabetes
    • HIV/AIDS
  • Young children
  • People with a weakened immune system

“I definitely encourage the flu vaccines for everyone who doesn’t have a contraindication. Children, pregnant women, senior citizens, people with diabetes or any condition that puts someone at risk is especially important,” Dr. Leal says. “Flu vaccines have been documented to prevent and/or reduce hospitalizations, reduce intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and lengths of stays in hospitals, lower cardiac events in people with heart disease, and reduce deaths.”

Personalize your recommendations for those patients you know are there to fill a prescription for a certain health issue. Even if the flu vaccine isn’t perfect immunity, it can reduce the risk of any disease that will result in hospitalization, or even death during flu season.

Suggest additional resources.

No matter how long you’ve known your patients, or how much they trust you, you won’t always be able to resolve this discussion. So, refer difficult customers to other medical professionals who can answer more questions and confirm what you’ve said. An informed discussion is just the start of their journey to learn more about the flu vaccine. A second opinion doesn’t hurt if they’re unsatisfied.

Try having a CDC fact sheet ready to hand out that debunks common myths. Or, slip a reminder sticker onto a prescription patients are picking up. Patients might do their own research at home, and come back, ready to get vaccinated.

Vaccines aren’t 100% effective, but they—and the herd immunity they provide—are pretty close, and they’re the best protection we have against certain conditions that quickly turned into epidemics throughout history.