EmblemHealth study finds language matters when communicating about COVID-19 vaccinations

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EmblemHealth study finds language matters when communicating about COVID-19 vaccinations


Study conducted in anticipation of the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations


EmblemHealth, one of the nation's largest nonprofit health insurers, today released initial results of a new study on the importance of terminology and how it affects Americans’ openness to receive immunizations and vaccinations. The study found that people generally understand the difference between the terms “shot,” “vaccination” and “immunization,” with the latter two being the preferred terms across all groups—a finding that has broad implications for communications strategies as government agencies, health plans, employers and consumer groups disseminate information about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The record-breaking development of several promising new vaccinations by researchers comes at a time when communities throughout the United States are experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 infections. “The health care industry is at a crucial crossroads in the pandemic, with an opportunity to vaccinate millions of Americans over the next few months,” said Beth Leonard, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer. “We hope this research will not only contribute to how stakeholders drive COVID-19 vaccine adoption, but also how we communicate about immunizations and vaccinations in the future.”

The survey, conducted in December 2020, polled nearly 1,000 adults nationally, with a concentration in the Tristate area, where EmblemHealth’s family of companies operate. Among key findings from the survey:

  • Clinically, “vaccine” and “immunization” have different meanings yet are often used interchangeably. The study found that generally consumers understand the distinction. Respondents understood the term “immunization” as meaning protection from a disease or virus (“to make immune”), whereas “vaccination” was understood as the process that produces immunity (associated with the terms “prevention,” “cure,” “medicine” and “protection”). For clear and effective communication, the terms “vaccine” and “immunization” should be used in concert.
  • The term “shot”—which is often used when communicating about the flu vaccination—is generally understood as a mechanism to administer vaccinations, and has negative associations, including “scary,” “risky,” and “unsafe.”
  • Echoing previous research conducted by EmblemHealth, Black and African American populations consistently report hesitancy to receive the vaccination due to concerns about safety and effectiveness, regardless of terminology used.
  • Preferences also varied based on age, race, ethnicity, income and whether participants lived in rural, suburban or urban areas.

“Our findings confirm an important principle: words matter, especially when it comes to a topic as personal as health care,” said Leonard, whose team oversees communications for EmblemHealth and its medical practice, AdvantageCare Physicians. “The findings demonstrate the importance of using both ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunization’ in concert. As communicators and health care professionals, we should strike the term ‘shot’ from our vocabulary.”

As COVID-19 vaccination distribution continues to ramp up, EmblemHealth will be sharing its research with municipal and state partners as well as locally elected officials, union leaders, employer partners and community-based organizations.

Infographic on the importance of using the right language for reach proper COVID vaccine adoption

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