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St. Louis Pediatrician Shares Tips For Persuading The Vaccine Hesitant

Dr. Kenneth Haller receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on December 22, 2021.
Courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Haller
Dr. Kenneth Haller receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in December.

Dr. Kenneth Haller has grown accustomed to conversations with parents who are leery of the COVID-19 vaccine. In these moments, the SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital struggles not to take it personally.

“When someone says, ‘I don't want to vaccinate my kid,’ as a doctor, I have an emotional response too,” he said. “I might react by saying, ‘Well, vaccines are safe and effective. There are plenty of studies to show that if you were a good parent, you’d do that.’ And those are all good, factual statements, but from a communication standpoint, that's awful.”

Haller said he reminds himself that this isn’t about anyone doubting his expertise. Rather, he said: “This person has questions. They love their child, they're scared, and I need to find out what's going on.”

Haller joined St. Louis on the Air to share what he’s learned about approaching vaccine hesitancy by working with his clients.

“We're all going through a transition right now, and I think we have to be gentle with each other about that,” he said. “I think by just letting ourselves be vulnerable and generous to other people, that can open a space for them to do the same for us.”

He added that it helps to find out what’s most important to the person. If they value spending time with family, it’s best to recognize and validate their feelings before diving into the facts.

“I think that those of us in the medical community and in the public health community … I think sometimes we haven't really listened. We haven't really listened to people saying, ‘This hurts,’" Haller said.

Dr. Kenneth Haller joins St. Louis on the Air

“Our response has often been, ‘Well, the most important thing is for you to stay alive.’ Now, that is the most important thing, but I think we would have done a better job if we had said: ‘Yeah, it does hurt. I know it hurts; it hurts me too. I would love to be able to go to dinner and a movie without even thinking about it. I hope that someday we will, and the only way we're going to get to do that is if we can take the time right now to put on our mask, to keep our physical distance, to wash our hands and get our vaccine.’”

In addition to validating emotion, Haller recommends asking questions.

“My task in my office is to say, ‘Tell me exactly what your thought is — what are you afraid of? What are the things you've heard? Because then I can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I've heard that too. And, and yes, I've heard it's very scary,’” he said. “If we can be vulnerable in presenting that message, then that allows people to be vulnerable and say, ‘OK, maybe I can take the chance of doing this.’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.