Make a difference by being a vaccine insister

When a patient is diagnosed with a chronic disease, like diabetes or hypertension, physicians don’t merely suggest medications to lower blood sugar or blood pressure – they insist that patients take medications to protect their health. However, the recommendation to get an annual influenza (flu) shot to prevent flu is often not as emphatic. Research has shown that patients are much more likely to get a flu shot when it is offered or recommended by a health care professional.

National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), an annual event created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a great time for health care professionals to highlight the importance of annual flu vaccination for everyone age six months and older. Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone has gotten the message about flu vaccines and many vulnerable individuals remain unprotected. NIVW also reminds health care professionals to strongly recommend flu shots to their patients, especially those at high risk, including adults age 65 years and older.

The flu can be serious for everyone, but for adults age 65 years and older, flu doesn’t just mean a few days at home in bed — it could mean a hospital stay, life-long complications, and in some cases, even death. In the U.S., older adults account for more than half of all flu-related hospitalizations and 85 percent of flu-related deaths. Despite the risks, vaccination rates among older adults have remained stagnant for the past five years.

For adults age 65 years and older, there are two safe and effective vaccines (high dose and adjuvanted) that are specifically-designed to overcome the effects of an aging immune system. To protect our patients against flu-related complications and provide them with the best chance of a swift recovery, we must give them explicit prescriptions and instructions.

With my patients, I like to tell them, “It’s wintertime, and that means it’s time for your flu vaccine. You’ll receive it on the way out.” Providing them with a strong recommendation as well as easy (and immediate) access to the vaccine helps ensure that they recognize the importance of getting an annual flu vaccine. In fact, if I do get pushback from patients, I tell them that ‘I am vaccinated, my family is vaccinated, everyone who works in this office is vaccinated, and we want all of our patients to get protection from flu by being vaccinated.’

All health care professionals, including primary care and specialty care physicians, as well as caregivers, family members, and friends need to strongly insist on annual flu vaccination to the older adults in their lives. A strong recommendation — and sometimes even a written “prescription” — is essential to ensuring that those age 65 years and older are protected from the flu each and every season. Vaccines are the most basic tool for preventive care, and as such, we should all be vaccine insisters.

During NIVW, I recommend that you view a new resource developed to assist in discussing the importance of an annual flu vaccination with older adult patients. The Care For Older Adults? Care About Flu! toolkit, recently released by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, includes resources to help you make a strong influenza vaccine recommendation and ensure that your older adult patients get the protection against influenza that they deserve. The toolkit includes a downloadable fact sheet on the risks of flu in older adults, an infographic to illustrate the unique risks and potential complications of flu among this population, customizable scripts to help guide conversations with patients, and a 30-second video about the importance of annual flu vaccination.

These resources can help prepare health care professionals to have important conversations with their older adult patients and acknowledge the importance of insisting that a flu shot be an annual tradition.

Together, we can help protect this important population.

William Schaffner is an infectious disease physician and medical director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

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