(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – The flu shot is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and those around you from illness. However, flu shots and other preventive health resources are not offered or accessed equally across different racial groups. Last flu season, 53% of the white population received flu shots, while just 38% of Hispanics and 41% of the Black population received a vaccine. Now, leaders at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are deliberately and aggressively addressing health care inequities to close gaps and protect the health of as many people as possible across the communities they serve, starting with initiatives to improve access to flu shots to encourage non-white patients to receive them.
“If there’s a way we can reduce that disparity by providing improved access to the vaccines and addressing the community’s concerns, that is absolutely the right thing to do,” said Dr. Aaron Clark, a family medicine physician at Ohio State and medical director of the Ohio State Health Accountable Care Organization. “We also understand that if we can figure out how to improve immunization rates against influenza, a lot of those same lessons can be transferred over to our COVID immunization efforts.”
COVID vaccines carry perhaps even more skepticism than flu shots, but vaccinating as many people as possible is crucial to public health. These methods used to increase flu and COVID vaccinations can also help close disparities in preventive measures like diabetes checks and cancer screenings.
Clark says every health care institution should work to address these issues. Staff members at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center reach out to underserved neighborhoods with phone calls targeted to specific ZIP codes. Nurses speak to every patient about the flu vaccine and offer to administer them in the emergency department or any other setting in which the patient feels comfortable receiving care from a provider they trust, including primary care and specialty clinics. These efforts are already moving the needle, with Ohio State’s emergency department administering 10 times the number of flu shots to non-white patients by March of 2021 than the entire 2019 – 2020 flu season..
“We just have to stop and take the time to work with every patient and understand their beliefs about the vaccine. Then we have to engage with them and try to encourage vaccinations without offending that patient or making them feel belittled,” said Nate Royster, an emergency department nurse at Ohio State. “It’s a lot easier to just move on with your day after a patient says ‘no’ to a vaccine, but that won’t address the problem. We really have to start with one patient at a time until we get everyone vaccinated that we possibly can.”