Thousands of Americans die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases, such as pneumonia and influenza. For older adults, these two diseases alone constitute the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Given the effectiveness of both the pneumonia and flu immunizations, why aren’t more seniors getting vaccinated?
This is a question that state, local and federal health officials are trying to answer, and it’s leading them to look for better ways to raise awareness about the importance and availability of these vaccinations, especially for seniors in underserved areas.
The Atlantic Quality Innovation Network (AQIN), the Quality Innovation Network-Quality Improvement Organization (QIN-QIO) serving New York, South Carolina and the District of Columbia, is committed to changing the way South Carolinians think about immunizations.
Seeking to build on its ongoing vaccination efforts, AQIN, in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), launched a coalition in early 2015 of nearly 40 organizations in the state, including the South Carolina Office of Rural Health, American Academy of Family Physicians, the South Carolina Pharmacy Association, and the Medical University of South Carolina. The coalition’s goals were to share best practices, tools and resources in an effort to increase immunizations, and to encourage providers to document and report immunization rates.
“We knew from the start that community outreach would be the key to success, so we incorporated immunizations into our other quality improvement work and engaged partners that helped attract new collaborators,” said Melinda Postal, Quality Specialist at AQIN-South Carolina. “That led us to our initial work with the Governor’s Office.”
With encouragement from AQIN, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley issued a proclamation in late 2015 that recognized Senior Vaccination Season and the need for expanded vaccination awareness efforts across the state. According to Postal, this recognition was an important tool that helped draw attention to the coalition’s work.
The partnership developed educational bookmarks that were distributed by members to approximately 15,000 seniors statewide. One side of the bookmark focused on flu prevention and the other side on shingles, which also impacts seniors at alarming rates. Coalition members also started a vaccine-awareness monthly newsletter that is disseminated to stakeholders across the state. It aims to encourage providers to prioritize vaccinations, implement best practices and collaborate with peers.
“We knew from the start that community outreach would be the key to success."
The coalition’s efforts are already yielding results. From August 2014 to March 2015, 29 out of the 40 counties in South Carolina saw an uptick in influenza immunization rates, and from January to December 2015, all counties achieved higher pneumonia immunization rates. Bamberg County, an area with historically low immunization rates, achieved a six percent increase in flu vaccination rates. Orangeburg County, another area with low rates, saw a nearly three percent jump.
Nevertheless, barriers still exist. Many seniors aren’t able to access clinics because they lack transportation, and more education is needed — particularly around the fact that Medicare Part D covers many vaccinations.
Given these needs, the coalition is looking to expand its efforts, using county-level data to determine where to target efforts. This fall, coalition members plan to partner with Walgreens to host immunization clinics in rural areas. They are also developing a “vote and vaccinate” campaign, and will begin preparations for a statewide immunization conference.
Finally, the coalition views culture-specific messaging as critically important moving forward, as it strives to continue the upward trend in immunization rates.
“Family is very important in the South, especially among rural populations,” said Karen Southard, State Program Director at AQIN-South Carolina. “We’re finding that when we’re talking to seniors about getting vaccinated, it really hits home to say, ‘Do it for yourself, but also do it for your family and grandkids.’”