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Feature Article

Strategies to increase vaccination rates in older people

Michael Woodward, JOHN C.B. LITT, PAUL VAN BUYNDER
OPEN ACCESS

Co-administer vaccines

Presentation of a patient for one vaccine, such as annual influenza vaccine, provides an opportunity to check current vaccination status and offer other vaccines. Despite some product information advice to the contrary, pneumococcal vaccine can be given at the same time as the live attenuated HZ vaccine (although they are best administered in different arms), and each of these can be given at the same time as influenza vaccine. However, the safety and efficacy of administration of all three together has not been established.

Support opportunistic vaccination

Other strategies that can help GPs increase vaccine coverage among older people in their practices include opportunistic vaccination and notification and reminder programs, which can act synergistically. Opportunistic vaccination captures the patient when they attend the practice; the vast majority of the older population visit a GP several times a year.4,9 

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A successful opportunistic vaccination program requires some planning. Suggested steps for GPs and practice staff to support opportunistic vaccination include: 

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  • Display posters and leaflets about vaccinations for older people in the GP’s waiting and consulting rooms.
  • Routinely inform all eligible patients about each vaccine. A strategy is for the practice nurse to flag attending patients who are due for a vaccine in the appointment system after checking their vaccination status in the electronic record.
  • Integrate vaccination into health assessments (e.g. ensure HZ vaccination is part of the age 75 years health assessment).
  • Administer the vaccine and document this in the patient’s electronic health record as well as the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR, see below).
  • Give the patient information to take away that is relevant to their knowledge, interest and concerns or direct them to online patient information sites (e.g. www.ncirs.org.au/public, www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center).
  • Identify likely low-vaccination groups. Patients who attend the practice infrequently are less likely to receive recommended preventive care, such as vaccines. Reception staff can use the appointment system to generate a list of infrequent attenders (e.g. have not attended in the previous 12 to 18 months). This group could be sent an SMS or other electronic reminder suggesting they attend for vaccination.
  • Implement standing orders to guide staff such as practice nurses to offer a range of vaccines after appropriate checks of eligibility and contraindications. Practice nurses could then administer the vaccine without the GP being present. Although this might mean patients are not billed, it will increase patient convenience and could be done in association with a GP appointment. For example, patients could see the practice nurse for vaccination while waiting to see the GP.

Occasionally, patients have strong views about vaccination and resist offers of vaccines. Although these views need to be respected, it is useful to understand the patient’s exact concerns and whether they might be amenable to further information. A strategy to help avoid giving offence when repeatedly offering a vaccine is to say ‘I understand your concerns about the […] vaccine and respect your decision. I find from time to time that patients change their mind, so raising the issue gives them an opportunity to discuss their wishes,  address any concerns and possibly accept the vaccine if they wish’.

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Implement notification and recall programs

Vaccination rates are likely to remain suboptimal, even with a planned opportunistic vaccination program, unless GPs also use a notification and recall strategy. This is particularly important for nonseasonal diseases, such as shingles. Suggested steps in a notification and recall/reminder program for GPs include:

  • Appoint a co-ordinator. This increases the likelihood of teamwork, allocation of tasks and follow up of the impact.10,11
  • Identify eligible patients. Practice software can be used to compile a list. GPs will need to determine whether they are the patient’s usual GP, for example by checking the patient’s electronic health record. 
  • Notify eligible patients about relevant vaccinations using one or more methods, ideally including an electronic strategy such as SMS messaging or an electronic reminder system. Examples of the latter include SmartVax (www.smartvax.com.au) and HotDoc (https://hotdoc.com.au). A birthday card reminder is another way of prompting patients to attend for vaccination. 
  • Administer the vaccine and record the vaccination in the patient’s electronic record as well as the AIR. It can also be useful to give patients a small immunisation card that lists all the vaccines they have received. These cards are available from most state health departments and have the advantage of providing a portable summary of the individual’s vaccine history.
  • Send ongoing recalls and reminders to any missed or new eligible patients at appropriate intervals. A tailored phone call or SMS from the practice nurse coupled with a strong GP recommendation will further increase coverage rates and potentially save the practice the time and cost of sending repeated letters.10 It is important to document reminders in the patient’s electronic health record. Sending reminders is made easier for some patient target groups if they are captured in the electronic practice register; it is worthwhile setting up disease and high-risk practice registers for some conditions.10 

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Associate Professor Woodward is Director of Aged Care Research and a Senior Geriatrician at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, Melbourne, Vic. Associate Professor Litt is a Public Health Physician and Associate Professor in the Discipline of General Practice, Flinders University, Adelaide, SA. Professor Van Buynder is a Public Health Physician and Professor at the School of Medicine, Griffith University, Brisbane, Qld.