With increasing frequency I have been asked by friends and well-wishers about how “anti-vaxxers” are being broached by my medical school professors. Simply put, we aren’t being taught anything on the matter. This is insight on how future physicians are being groomed to handle public misinformation and media outcry. Obviously we are given the molecular biology and public health angles as to how vaccinations work from the micro to macro scale, but we aren’t supplied with the tools on how to discuss these seemingly controversial topics with our patients. This could be for a few reasons.
First, the rising trend in vaccination refusals and recent measles outbreak, coupled with subsequent media hysteria, will raise awareness of the harm of not vaccinating children—and this trend will correct itself. After all, it seems affluent Millennials are seeing the greatest raise in foregoing vaccinations. They understand that chemicals are pervasive in today’s world, and while they might not buy that vaccines cause autism, they certainly don’t believe that injecting children with man-made concoctions at an early age increases their biological fitness. Therefore, when the educated anti-vaxxers see the harm they may be causing society as a whole, let alone their own kids, the trend will inevitably correct itself. One would hope.
It isn’t only the Millennials; some of the unvaccinated come from isolated religious communities, and the poorer counties within a state tend to have lower levels of vaccination rates. Each patient is unique and asks questions regarding vaccinations with different levels of background knowledge. Therefore different ways to convey the same message about the effectiveness of vaccines would need to be employed by the physician. This is a technique developed more during third and fourth year of med school (I’m still in my second year which is primarily classroom-based) so maybe it is more appropriate to have these discussions later in schooling. Sometimes a patient’s anecdotal evidence (e.g. “My friend’s sister had a normal child until they got vaccinated and then the child became autistic”) is too ingrained and no amount of sound evidence can dissuade them from their preset justification. My school might just be trying to allow its students to form their own ways of picking and choosing their battles when it comes to handling these issues with the patients.
Lastly, perhaps doctors feel that by and large they are above the entire “debate” about whether vaccinations are good or bad. Let the 24-hour news cycle run its course. Football just ended, it’s too early for 2016 elections, Russia and Ukraine’s ceasefire is mildly interesting, and by national news standards there’s not really much going on besides the latest ISIS comings and goings. By physicians engaging in a discussion about the merits of vaccinating your kids, it may lend credence to the extreme minority’s position as a legitimate conversation starter. Last year, noted scientist Bill Nye entered a debate with noted Amish-look-alike Young Earth Creationist (YEC) Ken Ham on whether creationism and a 6,000-year-old Earth is a viable model for our origin. Many people felt that Nye showing up to the debate was essentially giving YECs publicity and a form of legitimization, even though they are an extremely small and vocal minority without the backing of any evidence or scientific merit—much like the anti-vaxxers. The biggest difference being that someone believing Earth is 6,000 years old won’t necessarily raise the chance that my child gets a debilitating illness.
As far as med school teaching is concerned, we are urged to strongly recommend for vaccinations for inquiring patients, but maybe we should also be discussing issues on a larger scale and how it relates to public health. Although we have a bioethics course, which excels at giving students the facts regarding the law and why and how the law was passed, we are never given the tools for how to make more permanent change in the community. We are not instructed on how to engage in ethical discussions about whether or not something like vaccinations should be mandated by the government. In the last decade there have been failed or short-lived attempts at making HPV vaccinations mandatory throughout the U.S. The issue has been up for legislation in nearly half of the states and has failed in all but Virginia and D.C. (it was passed and later repealed in Texas). Perhaps not surprisingly, people would prefer to have the opportunity to make the wrong decision rather than having the right decision forced upon them.
I believe that people are very much products of their environment and will naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance. Change on a macroscopic scale, like how society views public health mandates, can be unnecessarily slow to develop, except in rare cases like the polio vaccine—which was almost literally an overnight sensation. If many of the medical aspects of how we treat our bodies are dealt with in an “opt out” fashion I believe that we may see a significant increase in the quality of life across all strata of society. A great example of this is Spain’s organ donation rates. They have the highest rates of organ donation on the planet primarily due the country’s policy that each individual is automatically enrolled as an organ donor. If you want your organs to stay in your body to take them with you to heaven (or hell) after you die, you would have to fill out some paperwork. Well guess what? People generally find paperwork to be a nuisance and a tedious endeavor. You want me to fill out these forms just to be able to fill out more forms like we’re in some bureaucratic Soviet state? I’d rather just let you have my organs.
And that is the idea: create a society in which it is commonplace for people to generously donate their unneeded organs and they will eventually do so, not because it is the path of least resistance because it is the right thing to do to save other people’s lives. I envision after years or perhaps generations with a certain policy in place (like having to opt out of donating blood) that when the opt out policy is removed people still donate at the same rate because donating blood is something that people should feel compelled to do to help their fellow man. In the meantime, don’t incentivize performing a positive action, simply tack on some form of negative reinforcement to make a negative action (such as not donating blood or organs) more difficult. This way only those who have a true objection to the task will take these necessary steps.
In all likelihood there is no formal teaching for medical students on how to deal with anti-vaxxers in our pre-clinical years because it may not come up in doctors offices as much as the cable news-watching public may think. According to the CDC, vaccination rates have only had a very modest dip over the past decade and it should be far down the list of concerns doctors have for their patients. Some combination of it being a trendy topic, each patient’s situation being unique, and that it’s just beneath us as physicians to discuss, is what’s most likely being employed by our professors. There is already so much packed in our ever-expanding curriculum that we simply might not have time to really delve into the issues surrounding medical trends. Plus, by the time I actually become a doctor seeing my own patients, the medical landscape could be so vastly different that people questioning vaccinations would be a relic of a bygone era.