When vaccines against Covid-19 were first made available, Dutch doctor Robin Peeters was one of many medical practitioners recruited to provide information about vaccines at pop-up medical tents erected in fruit and vegetable markets in the city of Rotterdam.
After repeatedly fielding questions around the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, he says he was surprised by the level of disinformation patients were coming to him with.
“People are not sure what to believe any more, and they like to ask their questions to a medically trained person. After one or two questions, many people decided to take the vaccine immediately at the market,” Dr Peeters told The National.
The experience made him realise that short conversations with medically trained professionals went a long way in tackling vaccine hesitancy.
To reach a wider audience, Dr Peeters, who is chair of internal medicine at the Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, set up a hotline for questions related to the vaccine.
In November 2021, Dr Peeters started the hotline, Vaccinatie Twijfeltelefoon, with three medical students and received 700 calls on day one. Within a few weeks they had scaled up to seven students and by December, they were joined by four other university medical centres in other Dutch cities.
To broaden their base further, they recruited two medical students from Turkish backgrounds, the country’s second-largest minority ethnic group, to answer questions in their native language.
According to government statistics, the Netherlands has a high vaccine uptake with 86 per cent of the population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and 89 per cent of people having received at least one dose.
Nevertheless, with 4500 calls a week to the hotline, Dr Peeters, who is president of the Dutch Society for Internal Medicine, says there is “clearly still a need” for the service. The hotline’s aim, however, is to offer people a trusted and professional ear and not to push them to get inoculated.
“We don’t push of try to convince people to get vaccinated. Our goal is to inform so people can make their own choice, based on real medical and scientific information. The choice whether or not to get vaccinated is entire for the individual caller,” he says.
Dr Peeters says that for the most part people still have a lot of trust in doctors and just want to have their fears assuaged and questions answered before deciding to take the vaccine. The hotline doesn’t get calls from anti-vaccine people but in the rare instances that they do, the students are told to hang up as soon as possible as they are trained only to deal with medical issues.
The students are all in their final year of medical school and are kept regularly informed on the most frequently asked questions and the latest medical knowledge. They’re supervised by medical specialists and can consult their universities' network of experts, from gynaecologists to allergists, on any complex questions that are asked.
The most common questions, says Dr Peeters, are about pregnancy and fertility, and about possible allergic reactions.
“In addition, many people have questions about their own medical situation like, will the vaccine affect their migraine? Is it safe to get the vaccines when they are already using medication for diabetes or kidney failure?”
“For these people it can be reassuring to ask these questions about their own medical situation to an independent medically trained person, particularly as you can't find those answers on the internet” he says.
“We just want to fight against the misinformation that is circulating on the internet.”