Dr. Alison Buttenheim Testifies Before Congress


We’re interrupting your regular feed to bring you this shameless brag:

On Friday, our co-founder Dr. Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, testified before Congress at a hearing of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology. The hearing, titled “Science of COVID-19 Vaccines and Encouraging Vaccine Uptake,” is available here.

Dr. B starts at 1:03:00, but the other witnesses are well worth your time too. Here’s Dr. Buttenheim’s testimony in full:

Good morning, Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member Lucas, and members of the Committee. My name is Alison Buttenheim, I am an Associate Professor of Nursing and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and I am behavioral scientist who studies vaccine acceptance and vaccine hesitancy.

I had the honor of serving last year on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on the Equitable Allocation of the COVID-19 Vaccine. As part of that effort, I recently co-authored another National Academies report entitled STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN THE COVID-19 VACCINES, on which my written testimony is based.

That report is chock full of specific communication and engagement strategies to address hesitancy and ensure demand for our truly amazing COVID vaccines. We hope it will be a helpful guide to public health agencies at all levels working on vaccine roll-out.

In my very brief time with you today, I’d like to expand beyond that report and share additional insights and evidence that can further guide us as we tackle the exceptional challenge of getting vaccine in arms. Here are 5 science-based solutions to vaccine acceptance that I hope Congress can endorse, fund, and promote:

#1: Embrace the dual goal of vaccinating efficiently and equitably. This recently has been framed as a false choice, or either/or thinking, where people say we can either be fast OR be fair with vaccine rollout. I am very confident that we can do both, we just have to be deliberate, purposeful, and innovative in our approach to both tracking and achieving those complementary goals.

#2: Fix the easy stuff. Hesitancy is definitely a barrier to vaccination; but so is hassle. Even people who are motivated and excited about the vaccine can be deterred by the smallest amount of friction in the system, whether that’s complex logistics, inconvenience, or confusing instructions. Making and keeping a vaccination appointment should be easy and hassle-free, and, frankly, fixing those problems is often easier than changing someone’s mind.

#3: Keep doing the hard stuff, even if it doesn’t scale: There are a lot of people with very legitimate concerns about speed of vaccine development, or diversity of trial participants, or trust in medical research establishment. What’s emerging as the most effective way to help these folks is sustained, repeated, 1:1 conversations with trusted peers or vaccine validators. Now, you can’t bake that kind of engagement into a chatbot or a website FAQ or a message on the side of a bus, or even a TikTok video. So: we still have to stand up and support those time-intensive interventions, and get them to the people who need them, even if they don’t scale.

#4: Use fun and delight. As Cass Sunstein has said, there is a deep human need to smile and laugh, and we can leverage that need through evidence-based messaging and promotions that exceed people’s expectations about the vaccine and about getting vaccinated in surprising ways. One example that I hope you’ve all seen is the “Sleeves up NOLA” public service announcement from New Orleans. (If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it right after the hearing today, it’s on YouTube, I’ll send you the link, it’s truly fantastic.)

Lastly, #5: Fail fast, learn fast. Behavioral science advances in much the same way that lab science does: We generate hypotheses about an effective intervention, and then we test those hypotheses via experiments. We need to bring the same speed and rigor to vaccine acceptance research that we brought to vaccine development research, so we can get it right, in real time, and also learn for next time, because this is not our last rodeo. Immediate investments in behavioral science research are needed.

To recap:

1. We can be fast AND fair.
2. We should address hassle barriers to vaccination in addition to hesitancy barriers.
3. Some of our most effective strategies won’t scale, and that’s ok.
4. Fun is effective.
5. Learning what works is critical.

I want to thank the Committee for your time today and for your commitment to a science-driven vaccine rollout.
Thanks for making us proud, Dr. Buttenheim. ❤

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