Medical breakthroughs grab headlines and make a healthy future for all seem not only possible but also highly probable. New medications effectively treat once-dangerous problems, and newly developed vaccines make it so that hopefully some once-life-threatening diseases don’t resurface or claim lives.
Nevertheless, an often overlooked and yet significant barrier to advancing health care is reaching people who might be eligible – or prime targets, even – for a treatment, and then getting those people to take it—whether it’s a pill or a vaccination.
As technology develops, physicians are finding new ways to reach patients that not only lead to better communication and understanding but also align more directly with their needs. Some solutions, like the Penn-developed program Heart Safe Motherhood, for example, take advantage of telehealth platforms that give new moms the convenience of monitoring for potentially life-threatening high blood pressure from their home. This platform not only helps reduce the risk of missed appointments – a common issue with new moms who may be sleep deprived or overwhelmed with appointments for their new baby – but also help care providers to identify and get ahead of potential issues, which could be life-threatening.
More challenges come when patients don’t understand the value of certain preventive medicines, like vaccines.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and according to the CDC, is the most common STI in the U.S. with 79 million Americans diagnosed. HPV causes a range of symptoms from genital warts to a variety of cancers – including but not limited to cervical, vaginal, and penile. Roughly 12,000 men and 20,000 women are affected by HPV-related cancers. The HPV vaccine has been on the market since 2006, but shockingly, only about 5 in every 10 adolescents are up to date with HPV vaccinations, the CDC says.
“If you look at the data, uptake of the HPV vaccine remains suboptimal with minority women being less likely to get vaccinated,” said Lori Cory, MD, MSCE, an assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Given that epidemiologic studies have also demonstrated that minorities and women in lower economic brackets are at higher risk of HPV infection, we are left with a population of women that may be particularly vulnerable to HPV and its associated cancers.”
Cory’s work hopes to address those less-than-stellar HPV-vaccination rates.
“We wanted to better understand barriers to HPV vaccine acceptance in order to offer providers a solution that really empowers patients to make informed decisions,” Cory added.
In an effort to reach younger patients on their level and determine which method of communication resonates best, Cory and her team created an 8-minute educational video and a one-page handout. As part of their research effort, they aimed to measure the impact of the video and handout on vaccination acceptance. Study results showed that more than half of participants (many of whom were minorities or from a lower socio-economic background) who watched the video were willing to accept the vaccine, compared to just 33.3 percent of those who were given the handout.
The results are perhaps not surprising given the proliferation in recent years of YouTube tutorials, like those teaching you how to grill a steak or play the guitar for example. But according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 Millennials Report, the younger generations aren’t merely interested in the latest DIY video or celeb snap. They want “credible information that helps them make important life decisions.” Likely in response to the trend, in recent years, online education courses have skyrocketed, just as traditional book and magazine publishers have struggled to turn traditional profits. The CDC has also gotten on board with video education, offering online videos to providers about vaccines, instructing medical experts how they can speak to their patients about the value of vaccines and also address concerns.
Still, Cory says the proof is in the proverbial pudding and feels hopeful that her work will play a significant role in helping providers to bring important information to all patients.
“Cervical cancer rates have declined, likely due to HPV vaccinations and improved screenings,” Cory says. “However, we need to ensure that advancements made within research and clinical practice, in all areas of medicine, actually reach the patient. By educating our patients and engaging in sometimes challenging conversations with them, we can help patients to make informed decisions regarding offered treatments. When that happens, we’re doing our jobs.”
Although nothing can replace a meaningful relationship between a clinician and patient, educational materials are extra valuable in an era of medicine where limited face-to-face time with patients has to be efficient and fruitful. Cory says providing quality medical information to patients prior to a one-on-one with their physicians should lead to informed dialogue, easier decision-making, and higher patient-satisfaction.
Cory has plans to continue her research, but this time assessing whether patients follow through with completing the HPV vaccine series. Accepting a treatment and showing up to receive it multiple times are two different things, Cory says, but she feels confident that the latest findings suggest teaching patients—and teaching via tactics that will reach and resonate with a specific population—can result in real uptake.