Doctor-Author Book Chat: Gretchen LaSalle, MD
There’s been so much press about the potential COVID-19 vaccine, from tracking development details to speculating about compliance. And people are asking about other vaccines as well: I gave a talk last week, and the top questions ended up being about the flu vaccine. I sure wish Dr. LaSalle had been there! She writes one of the most helpful prevention blogs on the internet, and always has the latest evidence-based vaccine advice.
Dr. LaSalle has also recently published a unique and extremely well-written book called Let’s Talk Vaccines: A Clinicians Guide to Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy and Saving Lives.
We had a chance to catch up last week, and I got to hear the “story behind the book”, which I’ll share with you all in this, my second-ever Q+A-style behind-the-scenes doctor-author book chat!
Me: Tell us what your book is about and how it will help people, especially in the COVID-19 era?
Dr. LaSalle: Vaccine hesitancy was listed by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. It’s a growing concern, resulting in the recent return of vaccine preventable diseases like measles and pertussis. And now, with a COVID-19 vaccine around the corner, if we hope to return to some semblance of normal life, instilling confidence in vaccines is more important than ever! I wrote Let’s Talk Vaccines to help my fellow clinicians and others interested in this issue gain insight into vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vaccine movement– which are two fairly different things, by the way– and to help them in their approaches and responses to claims and questions brought by their vaccine-hesitant patients, family, and friends.
Me: What drew you to this topic? I must say, it can be quite controversial.
Dr. LaSalle: Before writing Let’s Talk Vaccines, I found myself running into vaccine hesitancy all the time. And I didn’t feel equipped to address my patients’ concerns with confidence. This left me feeling frustrated, ineffective, and like I was leaving my patients and community at risk. In medical school, we get lots of training on the building blocks of vaccine science (immunology, virology, infectious disease, pathophysiology, statistics, and more). But we don’t really get trained in how to address the constantly changing goalpost of anti-vaccine claims that we encounter in our day-to-day practices and among friends and family. So I set about to educate myself — to take each claim and search for the data that either supported or refuted it.
Along the way, I realized that many of my fellow clinicians were struggling with the same issues. I also recognized that, while there are some amazing resources out there, like journal articles and websites, but no one quick and convenient place that allowed the busy primary care clinician to access the answers to these myriad questions and concerns.
Me: So tell us how you went from the idea to the book. How did you find an agent and a publisher?
Dr. LaSalle: First, I wrote an article in the Journal of Family Practice called “When the answer to vaccines is ‘No’” but knew there was so much more that I wanted to share than what I could fit in the space of a journal article. I signed up to attend the Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals conference put on by Harvard Medical School and, not to sound too dramatic, but it totally changed my life. If you are a healthcare profession interested in publishing your work, I TOTALLY recommend this conference.
I gained invaluable insight into the publishing industry and met with social media and marketing experts who advised me on how to get the word out about my passion. I had the chance to have editors read and critique writing samples, met with publishers and literary agents, honed my “elevator pitch” skills, and took a seminar on how to write a book proposal. But the most important thing about this conference were the connections I made while there. I met the most amazing group of women physicians who share my passion for writing and education and we continue to support each other to this day!
It was through this contact that I found my publisher. One of the writers I befriended was a fellow family doctor and established author who had already published several books and was working on another. She believed wholeheartedly in my book idea and sent my book proposal to one of her publishers. They liked my idea and that was that! I know it’s often so much more difficult than this. I feel a little guilty that I didn’t have to struggle as much as most authors do but it just speaks to the power of connections!
Me: I know it couldn’t have been easy. What challenges did you face in bringing this book to life?
Dr. LaSalle: One of my biggest struggles in writing this book was having confidence in my own authority on the subject. I suffered from a bit of imposter syndrome, I guess you could say. At points, self-doubt would kick in and I would think things like “You’re not an infectious disease expert or a researcher or an epidemiologist, why would people want to hear what you have to say on this topic?” But this was an important exercise in recognizing my own value. I would remind myself that I had over a decade of experience in talking to people of all ages about vaccines. I had honed my approach to the conversation to the point that I was generally very successful in bringing my vaccine-hesitant patients to a confidence in vaccines. I had the practical, day-to-day, face-to-face experience that few researchers or epidemiologists or even infectious disease doctors have.
Me: I love that, and it is so true, talking to patients about vaccines can be incredibly challenging, and if you can do it well, you are extremely skilled and you should be considered an expert! What are some pro tips you want us to take away after reading your book?
Dr. LaSalle: Well, for one, fear is a big motivator behind vaccine hesitancy. We need to take the time to ask about and understand each individual’s concerns so we can address them and educate. It’s also critical to understand that data don’t change peoples’ minds. Relationships and a genuine, respectful attempt at understanding do. And stories, don’t forget the power of stories! Oh, and time. With time, life experiences, and a consistent message from their clinician, people often come around in the end. However, if we don’t have the data or information at our fingertips, some opposed to vaccines will continue to think they know more than we do about this topic. We need to educate ourselves. Let’s Talk Vaccines will hopefully give you everything you need to know for the fight.
Me: You’re totally my hero for taking on this incredibly challenging issue. What can I do to help?
Dr. LaSalle: Well, Dr. Google and anti-science forces are not going away. Just like the anti-vaccine movement, we too can use social media and traditional media as a bullhorn, but in this case we are advocating for science and facts, not spreading misinformation and fear. Patients care what we think. The public is eager to hear from us. Medical and public health professionals need to get better at using our voices in a public forum.
Me: I am so, so in agreement with this. More doctors need to use their education and standing to combat medical misinformation. I am so with you, and this is the kind of work I try to do every day, in all of my spare time. Thank you Dr. LaSalle, for the work that you do!