Patsy Stinchfield remembers vividly the measles outbreak of 1990 when more than 500 people were infected in Minnesota alone.
“We had to turn a 40-bed unit into a measles ward,” says Stinchfield, who at the time was early in her career as an infectious disease nurse practitioner at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. “We had to send children who weren’t infected to an adult hospital. We had two children die under our roof.”
So you can hardly blame Stinchfield, now director of infection prevention and control and an infectious disease pediatric nurse practitioner at the health system, for becoming extremely passionate when it comes to talking about vaccination and the measles outbreak that is garnering so much attention in the mainstream press and social media.
“I have seen children die of vaccine-preventable disease,” she says. “I’ve held parents in my arms who wondered why they didn’t vaccinate their child, or why their provider didn’t tell them they were behind on their vaccination schedule.”
Now, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the current uptick in measles — 102 cases in 14 states between Jan. 1 and Jan. 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — will reach epidemic proportions, but the rapid spread of any infectious disease is certainly cause for concern and reason for hospital leaders and clinicians to figure out what they should be doing differently.
Stinchfield says providers need to “own some of the problem,” suggesting that they’ve been too passive in how they communicate with parents.
“We ask parents, ‘How do you feel about vaccines?’ That gives them a way out. You couldn’t imagine a cardiologist saying, ‘How do you feel about repairing that hole in your child’s heart?’ We have to change so that the conversation is more presumptive. ‘You are in the clinic because you want the best health for your child and the best health starts with a vaccine.’ If you do that, the acceptance and trust goes way up.”
At the same time, she says, clinicians need to improve their listening skills and understand where parents are coming from — perhaps they had a bad reaction to a vaccine, or they have religious objections. Improving those skills will go a long way toward building trust.
The CDC offers several resources aimed at helping clinicians better communicate and engage with parents and children.
“One of the mantras we have is that every visit is a vaccine visit,” Stinchfield adds. Clinicians at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota will mend the sprained ankle, but also use that visit as an opportunity to go over the child’s vaccine schedule with the parents. Under Stinchfield’s leadership, the health system several years ago launched the Children's Hospitals and Clinics Immunization Project, an outreach effort that goes into the community to educate parents about the benefits of vaccinations.
“We have a responsibility to promote better health in our communities,” Stinchfield says.