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Conversations to save lives

On the news or in films, medicine is so often presented as a profession of action – of inserting lines and resetting bones, and with intense surgical procedures playing out in operating theatres where sudden, massive blood-loss leads inevitably to life-or-death decision-making by hard-nosed, superstar surgeons. Yet, at least from my perspective as a pre-clinical medical student, the larger portion of real medical care is dialogue – meeting a person where they are and using language to cast light on the road ahead. 

This thought came to mind as I was listening to a podcast this week that featured Kawsar Zaman, a British barrister and founder of the Take the COVID-19 Vaccine Campaign, which seeks to reduce vaccine hesitancy and refusal amongst the UK’s population at large, with a particular focus on engaging ethnic minority communities who have additional reasons for vaccine scepticism. Zaman, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, was motivated to start the initiative following conversations with his mother who expressed her misgivings about the vaccine, all against the backdrop of the over-representation of ethnic minorities in the UK’s soaring death figures.

So Zaman, who is not a doctor, is working hard to bridge the gap that exists between marginalised communities and the medical establishment in vaccine delivery, which begs the question, what is our role as medical students in this project?

It is important to note that vaccine hesitancy is a phenomenon that has existed for as long as vaccines themselves – but never in human history has there been such an urgent drive to persuade the vast majority of the global population about the safety, efficacy and necessity of a vaccination programme. The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are numerous and complex, and include fears rooted in egregious medical scandals, including the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment amongst countless others; it is dangerous for the medical establishment to dismiss these fears as the product of watching too many conspiracy theory videos on YouTube. Instead, Zaman’s approach suggests a much more humane approach that involves engaging people in a dialogue, in language they can understand, to systematically address each of their fears individually.

From my vantage point as a pre-clinical student (and particularly as a locked-down pre-clinical medical student) I sometimes feel like all I do is take from patients – they give their time and energy to share intimate details about the worst times in their lives, all so that I can learn. But the conversations around vaccine hesitancy have given me pause – this is an opportunity for medical students to make a lasting impact on our communities, whatever our level of training. Within the medical hierarchy, we occupy the lowest rung, but this position comes with a special privilege: we haven’t yet been in the field long enough to have forgotten what it feels like to not be in possession of all the facts. We have not completed the transition from lay person to professional, we struggle daily with the discomfort that accompanies processing complex concepts including virology and immunology – bringing the people around us along on that journey could have a role to play in changing minds around the one technology that could finally bring an end to this pandemic.

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