Pediatrician: How I partnered with parents who didn't want to vaccinate

By | February 10, 2019
With the rise of social media, vaccinations have become debated online, and — emboldened by anonymity — people engage in name-calling and shaming.
Not only is this unproductive and divisive, it simply isn’t the right way for families to make decisions for the health of their children.
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As a pediatrician, over the past few years, I have cared for families with different views on vaccinations. Most parents followed my recommendations to vaccinate and, with parent guilt on their faces, held down their children while we administered the vaccines. In these cases, everyone went home knowing that the kids were protected against serious infectious diseases.
But some families weren’t as enthusiastic, and this is actually very common. In a survey of primary care pediatricians published in 2016, 93% reported being asked by parents to delay vaccines at least once in the previous month.
At the end of this spectrum are the families who refuse to vaccinate altogether. Here is my personal experience with two of these families, both of whom chose to vaccinate after years of pleas from their other doctors.
In the end, I believe that they made that decision because of our personal relationship. I was their pediatrician, and they trusted me.

We found common ground

We — the parents and their pediatrician — all cared about the well-being of the child in front of us.
The parents knew that I cared because I had offered my guidance on many issues before vaccines ever came up. They knew because when blood tests came back after office hours, I called them personally. When they came in for sick visits, I followed up days later, just to check in. When issues at school came up, we wrote letters to the principal together. And most important, they knew I cared because I made it very clear: “I am here to help, and I am on your side,” plain and simple.
With this understanding, we were able to move forward together when the topic of vaccines came up.

I didn’t judge them or call them names

“I’m not here to judge you,” I’ve said to many families. I won’t judge you if you need to call the office at 2 a.m. because your baby won’t stop crying and you’re worried; it’s our job to be there for you. I won’t judge you if you skipped calling and drove right to the emergency room because you were that worried.
And I won’t judge you if vaccinating your child scares you. I don’t think you’re stupid. I don’t think you love your child any less. I just ask that we talk about it.

We heard each other out

“I’d like to hear your concerns, and then I’d like to share mine” is my doctor go-to phrase. Cheesy as it may sound, I’m always sincere. I shut my mouth and listen, and it is only when I’ve understood the root of a parent’s concern that I start talking.
One of the families was skeptical of anything that they didn’t perceive as natural going into their baby’s body, so I focused my efforts on explaining how the components of vaccines are safe. Yes, they are chemicals, but they have never been proved to be harmful, I said. Our bodies, our food, our world is made up of chemicals.
The other family was skeptical of the medical community altogether, and once they’d made a decision not to vaccinate, it stuck. Their kids were now teens. With them, my efforts went to explaining the incredible amount of scrutiny a vaccine goes through before it is ever approved and how doctors like myself make no money from recommending or administering vaccines.
For both families, I explained the fundamentals:
  • No, vaccines do not cause autism.
  • Yes, the diseases they protect children against can be deadly.
  • You’ve never seen these diseases because vaccines work.
  • Vaccinating protects both your child and the children around them, including those who are too young or who, for medical reasons, can’t be vaccinated.
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I gave small amounts of information at a time. And on and on we went — for over a year and a half for one family and almost three years for the other. Between the other doctors and nurses, we left each other notes detailing how far we were able to take the conversation so that next time, we could pick it up where another left off.

We agreed to disagree, initially

For a long time, we got nowhere. But every time one of those two families came into the office, doctors and nurses diligently reminded them: Today is as good a day as any to change your mind.
And one day, each family did.
There was no big announcement, no commotion, no celebration. There was no acknowledgment that one side was right and the other wrong. There were no winners or losers — other than the children who would now be protected against potentially deadly illnesses.
I ordered the vaccines, the kids got them, and we moved on to the next item on the agenda in our shared mission to keep their children healthy.

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