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Vaccine engagement starts…volunteering with St John Ambulance

We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.

BSI member, Dr Louise Topping is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Oxford and an Early Career Representative on the BSI Forum. She has just completed the training needed to be a Volunteer Patient Advocate with St John Ambulance, which focuses on the welfare of patients pre and post COVID-19 vaccine. Here, Louise shares her thoughts on the positive impact of the role and how her immunology background has been an advantage.

Why did you decide to volunteer as a Patient Advocate with St John Ambulance, and how does your immunology background come into play?

As a Volunteer Patient Advocate my role is essentially to make sure patients have a positive experience. A lot of people might be anxious or nervous getting the COVID-19 vaccine so I think it’s important to have people there to reassure them and answer any questions they might have. And then, they can share that experience with their friends and family!

With my background, I can answer specific immunology questions. As immunologists, we have an advantage – we have the core knowledge of the immune system so we can instil confidence in people. My hope is to address their concerns, put them at ease and ensure everything goes smoothly.

How can interacting with people receiving the COVID-19 vaccines have a positive impact?

Delivering a message on the safety and efficacy of vaccines to as many people as possible is essential. People getting the vaccine may not be as sceptic as others in the community but, if they’re already confident about their benefits, they will act as vaccine advocates so it’s important for them to understand the science well.

The more people you can have actively spreading accurate information, the better the outcome. If everyone helps a handful of people, that will end up being a lot of people!

What have you learned at the St John Ambulance training that you could share with others?

The online and face to face training is extremely valuable for volunteers. I found the NHS training really informative, going through core knowledge of vaccines and modules on specific COVID-19 vaccines.

With my background as an immunologist and my experience in public engagement a lot of the concepts weren’t new to me. My main takeaways are open communication and transparency. In particular, staying calm, listening to their concerns, being honest about what we do and don’t know yet and focussing on educating people, not convincing them. 

Do you think there are benefits of being at the mass vaccination centres in person without digital barriers?

Yes! Generally, engagement is easier face to face. I think it’s a bit more personal and you can connect with others better. There’s another benefit as well because getting the vaccine is quite a big event and a lot of people will have high emotions – happy that they’re going to be more protected,  excited that they get to see their families soon, or uneasy about the situation – so answering questions at that point will have more of an effect.

What would you say to our members who haven’t started speaking out about COVID-19 vaccines yet?

You’re the best person for the job. If you’re anxious about getting involved, find what you’re comfortable with – you don’t have to sit in front of 500 people on Zoom. Explore the options. Even initiatives like I’m a Scientist (text-based chats) might be better for some. I think there’s something for everyone to partake in – find what works for you!

Follow Louise on Twitter @drloutopping

Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.

Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.