Advocates and Educators: How Pharmacists are Improving Vaccination Rates

Published on 07 January 2020

During vaccination season, pharmacists are on the front lines addressing misinformation about vaccine safety and effectiveness. Pharmacy-based vaccination services have grown exponentially in the last several years. Whereas patients used to visit a doctor or clinic for a vaccination, they can now stop by their local pharmacy, usually without a prescription. This has made vaccines more convenient and cost-effective, which has improved vaccination rates and public health.

“Pharmacists are health care providers who fill gaps in the medical system,” explained Roxane Took, Pharm.D., BCACP, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “We free up physicians’ time and serve as providers in underserved areas, such as rural communities. In addition, companies invite pharmacists on site to vaccinate employees, especially during flu season. Across the board, pharmacists are helping to increase vaccination rates.”

Vaccinations are vital to public health, and high numbers of vaccinations in an area create herd immunity. Herd immunity protects those who are unable to receive vaccinations, such as very young children or those with compromised immune systems. This is especially important for deadly diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, but even the flu can be deadly to a person with an immature or compromised immune system.

“Herd immunity definitely works,” explained Nicole Gattas, Pharm.D., BCPS, director of experiential education and associate professor of pharmacy practice. “In areas where measles is spreading, you find a high concentration of people who don’t vaccinate. Diseases like the flu or measles can spread very quickly, so it’s important for all eligible persons to be vaccinated.”

Pharmacists are trained to look for opportunities to educate patients on the vaccinations they need, based either on their current medications or because of risk factors such as age. These conversations can help improve the patient’s health and protect vulnerable members of their family.

“For instance, if we see a prescription for prenatal vitamins, we can talk to the patient about making sure that anyone who comes in contact with the baby is fully vaccinated,” Gattas said. “Or if we see a prescription for asthma medication, we can talk to the patient about a pneumonia vaccine. We are vaccine advocates and educators with our patients.”

Student pharmacists at the College begin learning these skills almost immediately upon entering the Doctor of Pharmacy program. During their first professional year, they learn how to administer vaccines. Next, they study motivational interviewing, which teaches them how to help patients find their own internal motivation to adopt healthy practices. For example, if a patient is reluctant to get the shingles vaccine, asking the patient if they know anyone with the disease makes the conversation more personal than merely stating facts.

“Our students are interested in learning how to advocate for vaccines,” Took explained. “Operation Immunization is a student group that gives educational presentations on vaccines, such as speaking to retirement center residents about vaccines for pneumonia and shingles.”

Addressing misinformation is a key component to patient care as well. When a patient is reluctant to receive a vaccine, pharmacists have an opportunity to discover the cause of their reluctance and dispel the myths or fears they have.

“I’ve heard patients say that they don’t want the flu shot because it made them sick, or it didn’t work,” Took explained. “If they say they had an upset stomach, then I explain that the ‘stomach flu’ isn’t actually the flu. Or if they got the shot but came down with flu symptoms a few days later, I explain that it takes two weeks for the shot to be fully effective. Asking the right questions is key to dispelling these myths.”

In addition to dispelling myths, pharmacists are also key to providing information on updates or changes to vaccines. Patients may not realize that new vaccines are available or that recommendations have changed.

“Pharmacists are educators as well as health care providers,” Took said. “For example, we talk to patients more than 50 years old about the new shingles vaccine and explain how much better it is than the old one. While the old vaccine was about 50% effective, the new vaccine is more than 90% effective, and it’s a dead virus, so you can’t get shingles from it. Taking a few minutes to talk to a patient and understand them as an individual can keep them from getting a painful or deadly disease and protect the wider community.”

This story was first published in the fall 2019 issue of Script magazine. To read past issues of the magazine, visit the Script magazine archive.

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