Here's Why Doctors Need Better HPV Vaccine Training

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection that has the potential to cause a wide range of cancers, including cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat. A vaccine that can prevent HPV (and, consequently, its associated cancers) has been around for nearly a decade; however, it continues to be widely underutilized. For instance, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among teens aged 13-17, just 39.7% of girls and 21.6% of boys had received all three of the recommended doses of this vaccine in 2014. This is far lower than the rate of other recommended immunizations for people in this age group. 

There are numerous factors contributing to the underutilization of this vaccine, not the least of which are persistent rumors and misinformation about it, such as the idea that the vaccination gives those who receive it a "license to be promiscuous." However, new research suggests that doctors themselves are also an obstacle to more widespread usage because they do not approach it the same way that they approach other vaccinations.

In this study, 776 family physicians and pediatricians around the United States were surveyed about their beliefs and communication practices with respect to the HPV vaccine. The results revealed that about half of the doctors surveyed were engaging in at least two practices that were likely to discourage teens from receiving the HPV vaccination at the recommended time. Consider these statistics:

  • 59% of doctors only recommended the vaccine to those believed to be "at risk"
  • 26% of doctors did not give timely vaccine recommendations for girls
  • 27% of doctors did not strongly endorse the vaccine
  • 44% of doctors did not recommend same-day vaccinations
  • 39% of doctors did not give timely vaccine recommendations for boys

Doctors who reported less comfort talking about the vaccine and/or who believed that parents did not value the vaccine were more likely to engage in communication practices that discouraged teens from receiving it.

These results suggest that increasing rates of vaccination for HPV will require us to improve the way that doctors communicate about it to patients and parents. To the extent that medical training programs can target the communication problem areas identified here, it is likely that more people will get the vaccine at the recommended time and, ultimately, fewer will develop the devastating cancers linked to this virus.

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To learn more about this research, see: Gilkey, M.B. et al. (2015). Quality of physician communication about human papillomavirus vaccine: Findings from a national survey. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-15-0326

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