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a girl receives a vaccination
(photo by CDC on Unsplash)

Vaccine rollout must respect the rights of patients in diverse communities

This story was first published by Croakey News Media, an independent, public-interest, journalism organisation, publishing debate and investigations on policy and issues for health and wellbeing. Edited by Linda Doherty.

Introduction (by Croakey)

Australia’s diverse communities will require specific strategies to get the right message out about the benefits and safety of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Clear communication, including verbal communication, will be critical to connect with people of many different cultures and languages.

In this article below the Consumers Health Forum of Australia and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia call on governments and health authorities to provide for the unique needs of patients and consumers – and ‘to go early and hard’ to educate and inform.

Their call comes as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) sounds the alarm about misinformation being spread by Pete Evans and Liberal MP Craig Kelly, and as the Prime Minister draws fire for refusing to silence Kelly.

Effective messaging for all Australians

Ensuring the message on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout is effective in informing all Australian residents of its great benefits will require federal and state governments to step up the focus on the widely varying communities they must reach.

To get the vaccine to all of the people who need it and want it will be a huge logistical task requiring a strong level of awareness in all communities, and action by all authorities in government.

The Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) are highlighting the importance of a health system that recognises and provides for the unique needs of patients and consumers.

Too often our health system fails to respond effectively to the best health interests of individuals who may not fit the system’s mould. The result of such failures is powerfully expressed in this Guardian article about the callous treatment of a patient from a minority community.

As medical specialist, Dr Ranjana Srivastava writes, Australia’s health system makes some people, particularly from minorities, feel forced to do as they’re told.  “Whatever happened to patients’ rights?” she asks.

Think then of the implications for the way the vaccination program will need to appreciate differences in the community and among individuals.

The great diversity of Australia’s ethnic communities requires specific strategies that connect with people of many different cultures and languages – the right messaging and the right channels to make an effective connection.

This cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. It needs to involve organisations from the grassroots upwards through community and state leaders to ensure that continuing feedback can enable the information and the vaccine program to be tailored to the different needs of different communities, whether it be in terms of language, culture or custom.

It will be important to have some sort of focus group feedback that provides nimble and effective responses to people’s concerns about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Community unease

There is the possibility that the Federal Government has underestimated community unease. While there may be more uncertainty than resistance, prompt action can make a difference in addressing concerns effectively.

The Commonwealth approach so far appears to be a very generalised view that “there is nothing to fear here”. But that won’t cut it in the current climate.

Once negative rumours take hold, they are very hard to dispel. We need to go early and hard in getting the right message out on the benefits and safety of vaccination.

It is also important that much of the messaging is verbal and from trusted community sources and recognised community leaders, like well-known commentators on ethnic radio.

Many people in ethnic communities have poor literacy even in their own language. Often they may be more likely to understand and act on a simple message in English rather than a complex one in their own language.

FECCA advocated the creation of an advisory committee represented by community stakeholders at the start of the pandemic. Towards the end of last year, the Government organised the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group.

FECCA appreciates this response as the group is now a platform where community concerns on the vaccination and their potential solutions are discussed at the national level. Given the diversity of the community and the immediacy of widespread vaccination, state and local governments need to similarly engage local stakeholders.

The need for a community and patient-focused approach is central to the six principles expressed in CHF’s position paper on the vaccine rollout. One of those principles is equity, which is also the bedrock of FECCA’s work.

Together, we state that every effort should be made to address existing inequalities through the vaccine rollout, noting that public health restrictions have placed the greatest burden on those with the greatest need for social and structural supports.

Consumers also recognise that equitable access to vaccines requires a risk-based approach where those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, including older Australians, people who are immune-compromised and healthcare providers, should be prioritised in the roll-out.

Ensuring equity in the roll-out will go far in preserving the patients’ rights that are too often forgotten.

The key to success will be to effectively marry factual, medically sound information about the vaccines themselves and the rollout with targeted information appropriate to both the diversity of Australian society and the variation in health literacy across the community.

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About the author

Portrait of a woman with long dark hair and galsses

Mary Patetsos

Mary Patetsos is chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) and a board member of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia. 

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia