George Mason University

News at Mason

Open communication is key in vaccination conversation, says Mason researcher

April 19, 2019

Vaccinations have resurfaced in the media amid various measles outbreaks across the country and have created heated debates on what should be done about “antivaxxers,” or those who choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children. 

But Heidi Lawrence, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University, says this kind of “blame-game” is counterproductive to creating healthy communities and reducing outbreak rates. Health professionals and the public alike need to change the way they talk about vaccines, she said.​

In her new book, “Vaccine Rhetorics,” Lawrence explores how people—medical practitioners, parents and communities—discuss the controversial topic and how communication and persuasion techniques can be used to ensure healthy communities. ​

"It's all about balance," said Lawrence, who added she isn't advocating nonvaccination. "We have to rethink how we're addressing that problem and how we're responding to it." ​

Lawrence said most people who are skeptical about vaccines fall somewhere in between provaccination and antivaccination, and persuasion needs to happen most among people who are skeptical about certain types of vaccinations, like the flu shot or the vaccination that protects against human papillomavirus (HPV). ​

“Really if you look at the data,” said Lawrence, “the number of people who are truly antivax, who don't get any vaccines for any of their children at all, is pretty small.”​

Being respectful of another person’s views is the best way to start having these conversations, Lawrence said—telling someone their views are stupid or ignorant, or threatening to call Child Protective Services to report nonvaccination, only creates hostility. She added that this type of interaction, especially from doctors, can lead to stronger distrust in public health officials, especially from those who are already skeptical.  ​

"If those folks go deeper and deeper underground, if they don't go to the doctor when their child has a fever of 100 degrees, if they don't see that as space where they can go, where else are they going to go? What else is going to happen?” said Lawrence. “That's what we need to start preventing; we really want to keep people engaged with systems as much as possible and feel safe in them."

More mandates, regulation and policing are not the answer, said Lawrence. Instead, she argues in her book that persuasion is still a preferred path to addressing patient concerns without having to result to compulsory tactics, which carry the risk of backfiring and intensifying mistrust between patients and providers. ​

Lawrence argues that key principles—such as understanding one’s audience, listening and creating open spaces for deliberation—can be adopted by a wide range of stakeholders to improve communication about vaccines, reduce hostilities and keep lines of communication open for persuasion. ​

"If we can improve their engagement with the health system and if we can improve their engagement with health interventions, arguably we are producing a healthier person,” said Lawrence. “It has to start with trust; it can't start from a place of fear."​

Lawrence’s book will be released in the spring of 2020.   ​

Heidi Lawrence can be reached at 703-993-1160 or hlawren2@gmu.edu

For more information, contact Mary Lee Clark at 703-993-5118 or mclark35@gmu.edu

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.