To raise COVID vaccination rates, rely on primary care physicians

May 7, 2021, 3:30 PM UTC
America has “hit the wall of vaccine hesitancy,” writes Stanley M. Bergman. “And the only way to clear the wall is to engage those health care professionals most able to persuade the hesitant to take a shot.”
Sarah Reingewirtz—Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG/Getty Images

It’s critical that we get the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s also critical where we can get the vaccine.

The Biden administration acknowledged this fact on May 4 when it announced plans to “launch a comprehensive strategy to make vaccinations available in more places—with a focus on pediatricians and family physicians—and to continue to build trust with teens and their parents.” 

Who better to build trust than a family’s primary care doctor? How better to distribute the vaccine than through the well-established, highly efficient private sector health care distribution channel that regularly distributes much of the nation’s vaccines?  

Henry Schein has been promoting for months the benefit of engaging these physicians in the vaccine rollout, because we understood that at some point, we’d hit the wall of vaccine hesitancy. We are there now, and the only way to clear the wall is to engage those health care professionals most able to persuade the hesitant to take a shot.  

But there’s a wrinkle.

At this juncture, the Biden administration’s plan to engage physicians continues to rely on distribution primarily through states, which has been challenging—both for the states and for physicians. State and local authorities tell us it has been difficult to distribute the vaccine and the related kits to smaller sites, such as physicians’ offices, because government logistics networks do not traditionally serve what are essentially small businesses accustomed to working through established distribution channels. While this is a complex process for the states, it is what private sector health care products distributors do easily every day. 

A significant number of Americans already receive flu and other vaccines from office-based physicians because a well-established, effective and efficient private sector supply chain exists. We just need to tap into this existing supply chain for COVID vaccines, as appropriate, given various cold-chain storage requirements. We also recognize that the nation will swiftly need to prepare for the delivery of booster COVID vaccines which, like flu vaccines, may require annual administration. Again, the private sector supply chain, of which my company is a part, is built for this purpose.

To be sure, thus far, the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination effort has been nothing short of extraordinary in quickly getting shots in arms. But we also recognize that the country is now in a race against the variants, that we continue to see equity challenges in the uptake of the vaccine, and that there are high rates of vaccine hesitancy in some areas. 

As we enter this new phase in the vaccination campaign, where the scale has tipped so that supply outweighs demand, we must more effectively engage office-based practitioners to get us to the government’s goal of another 100 million doses delivered in 60 days. In fact, the highly regarded Harris Poll released data earlier this year showing that Americans, by far, trust the opinion of “my doctor” regarding the vaccine more than any other source’s opinion and are most comfortable receiving the vaccine at “my doctor’s office.”  

Family physicians have a physical presence in every community nationwide—large and small, rural and urban—which provides an advantage in addressing the dual challenge of vaccine hesitancy and health inequity. But according to a survey by the Primary Care Collaborative, only about 38% of the hundreds of thousands of primary care physicians in the country are offering COVID vaccines, in part because of the challenges they face under the state-by-state approach.

If we’re serious about a full-scale vaccine rollout, which requires overcoming distrust, we need to place office-based physicians front and center in the fight. These physicians know their patients, and patients trust what they learn from their own doctors, who can explain in detail how the vaccines work, why they are safe, and why getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible is vital to achieving herd immunity and restoring public health.

This vast network of physicians and dentists in the U.S. can be immediately activated literally overnight. This is why we have been advocating with the administration and Congress to highlight the need for a broader role for office-based physicians and to deploy the highly efficient supply chain that exists for exactly this reason. 

To get the unwilling to accept the vaccine, we must first accept the reality that highly trusted family physicians are essential to the rollout, and to accelerating our return to normalcy.

Stanley M. Bergman is chairman of the board and CEO of Henry Schein Inc.

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