Vaccine hesitancy continues to be one of the top challenges facing public health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a few national education campaigns, the task of convincing skeptical patients and staff to get vaccinated has largely fallen on local providers. UnityPoint Health utilizes a host of different media and messages for its effort. Modern Healthcare Managing Editor Matthew Weinstock spoke with UnityPoint Clinic President and CEO Dr. Sanjeeb Khatua, who joined the Iowa-based health system in January, to talk about building an effective outreach campaign. The following is an edited transcript.
MH: Some of the education and outreach that UnityPoint has been doing was in place before you arrived. Can you talk about what you saw when got there and what was unfolding?
Khatua: It was an interesting time coming in the midst of a pandemic, right when the vaccine rollout was beginning. And it was interesting coming from Chicagoland to Iowa, to UnityPoint Health. (There were) a lot of similarities in terms of what UnityPoint was trying to do in terms of getting shots in arms, really focusing on education and making sure we were up to date and accurate with what we were providing our communities, as well as understanding that this is a complex situation.
I came here and what I realized is it’s like a well-oiled machine, and I was very, very impressed with the rollout of education (efforts) before I got here to where we’re at now, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.
MH: So much of the pandemic has been politicized. How much of that have you encountered both when you were in Chicago and now at UnityPoint? How hard is it to overcome some of the anti-science rhetoric?
Khatua: From a learning perspective throughout COVID—and I think UnityPoint has done a phenomenal job of this—the goal is making sure we communicate to our stakeholders in a meaningful way to them and making sure that we over-communicate.
There’s not one singular approach on how to do that when you have all the politicization of the science and things of that nature. Health systems during COVID have become one of the most trusted sources of information. Physicians, nurses—utilizing the people that we have and the team members that we have to get that message out to the communities we serve.
MH: In some of the education materials that UnityPoint has put out, you are really using straight-forward language and talking in simple terms. How are you finding that approach successful?
Khatua: It’s a question of how do you articulate a difficult concept in simple ways? As you think about that concept and how we want to communicate to not just our employees but our communities, making sure we have a common message, sometimes simplicity is a good thing. We have tried to take all the information from our different stakeholders and worked to consolidate that information and understand what people are thinking or asking and put that message out in different formats. That being said, we also have information that is more detailed for those who want it.
MH: The campaign also talks about being respectful of people’s opinions and their backgrounds. Thinking about that question of science behind everything in the pandemic, how do you balance that?
Khatua: As we thought about the communities we serve and how we want to get through that clutter of information, we’ve focused on, like I said, that multifaceted type of approach. I’ll give you an example: With our employees, we want to make sure that we had different forums for them to be able to ask questions. We had an inbox where we had specialists who would answer their messages. We had over 5,000 inquiries.
We’ve had weekly videos for our employees done by our chief clinical officer, Dr. David Williams, to make sure that (the) message was clear to them. We also had a video where we try to teach our leaders how to have these difficult conversations with our employees and our communities, which is important because as we think about that cascading effect, if we can’t get our employees to understand the importance of the vaccines and actually get the vaccine, then how do we communicate that out to our communities?
The other thing that we did, at least for our employees, was a little case study in the Cedar Rapids region. Between December 15 and mid-January, we roughly had about 3,000 individuals who got vaccinated. We tracked those who got vaccinated versus those who weren’t. And what we saw over (that) span (was) a flattening of the curve in terms of the rate of them getting infected with COVID versus those (who were not) vaccinated. It brought it home a little bit compared with the national studies with tens of thousands of people.
And then to our external stakeholders … making sure that we partner with community members that can disseminate the type of information that would be meaningful to those communities. So in our communities of color, we really tried to focus on our providers who have diverse backgrounds.
MH: What have you found that resonates most with communities of color, where vaccine hesitancy has been a problem?
Khatua: We have to overcome the distrust in the medical community, in our different communities, especially in the African-American communities and other communities of color. Part of that is making sure the message resonates with those individuals.
We created a partnership model. We created a toolkit specific to our community partners so they could disseminate that information in a way that was meaningful for those communities. It goes back to education and making sure it’s not just myself or Dr. Williams going out there, sending out that message, but community members that they really trust … (with whom they) might feel a little bit more comfortable.
We had one of our infectious-disease physicians, Dr. Rossana Rosa, do a video. And what I loved about it is it was personal. She talked about herself as a physician during COVID being pregnant, and how she came about making the decision to get vaccinated and very clearly articulating that it wasn’t an easy decision, but she used facts and data and made a decision that was best for her. In our Peoria, Ill., region, (we) have a (chief medical officer) who’s of African-American descent. We had him do a video as well to talk about (the importance of) vaccines. We are trying to tailor our message to the communities that we serve.