GPs finding ways to convince seniors in S'pore to get vaccinated for Covid-19

Those aged 70 and above are at high risk of becoming gravely ill when infected with Covid-19, but close to 30 per cent have yet to be vaccinated.
Those aged 70 and above are at high risk of becoming gravely ill when infected with Covid-19, but close to 30 per cent have yet to be vaccinated.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - As the number of Covid-19 cases rises at a worrying pace and many Singaporeans make a beeline for the vaccination centre, one couple in their 80s are not joining in yet.

The wife, 82, who wanted to be known only as Madam Koh, wants to wait till her husband gets the vaccine before doing so.

The husband, Mr Lim, 85, who declined to give his full name, has high blood pressure and is afraid that the vaccine will affect his health and lifespan, so he wants to consult his doctor before doing so. His appointment is in September.

Madam Koh and Mr Lim are among the seniors that Singapore is trying hard to convince to get vaccinated, and as soon as possible.

Those aged 70 and above are at high risk of becoming gravely ill when infected with Covid-19, but close to 30 per cent have yet to be vaccinated.

This has raised fears of hospitals being overwhelmed should this group catch the virus, given that new cases fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant are mushrooming around Singapore.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung recently made a call for general practitioners to help convince seniors to go for their jabs, citing their influence with patients they have likely been treating for many years.

Several GPs The Sunday Times spoke to said they have already started to do so, but not all the seniors are heeding their advice.

Dr Quek Koh Choon, who runs Bedok Life Clinic, is one of the more successful GP advocates.

He has been urging his patients to take their jabs since early this year. And if they had done so, he would ask them to get their friends and family to do the same.

Many were convinced after seeing others in their age group, including those with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, take the jabs without suffering any major adverse effects.

Dr Quek said: "But I find it most effective to recruit the seniors who have undergone vaccination to be 'ambassadors' in propagating the safety and efficacy of vaccination."

Still, a significant number of his senior patients with chronic diseases are hesitant.

He said: "Most are fearful of the needle and there are those who are afraid of serious complications, especially with all the half-truths and distorted truths going around."

It may take time and patience to convince this group, and recently, he was encouraged to learn of one in this group who took the vaccine.

Apart from concerns about the side effects, the majority of those who have yet to take the vaccine may also not believe in vaccines or do not see the need to get vaccinated as they are homebound and "safe".

But here, someone else may be making the decision for them.

A 61-year-old, who wants to be known only as Randy, is his 93-year-old mother's caregiver and has decided that they will both not take the vaccine unless it becomes compulsory to do so.

The bachelor, who is unemployed, said he sees no point to getting the vaccine as it will not fully protect him from infection and he will still need to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing measures.

He told The Sunday Times that his mother has no objections to being vaccinated, but that he is the final decision maker as he is her caregiver. He added that his brother, 65, is also unvaccinated.

"I find that it's the children who are the anti-vaxxers," said Dr Tan Su Ming.

As some elderly parents are homebound, either because of dementia or a lack of mobility, their children see no need for the vaccine.

She said: "Their parent stays home and they feel this mitigates their risk of exposure, or they may fear that (the parent gets) some terrible side effects from the vaccine.

"But it doesn't mean that they are safe. I tell them that other people may spread the virus to the elderly person."

At Lee & Tan Family Clinic and Surgery, Dr Lee Yik Voon said his pitch to the seniors is that if they take the vaccine, they are less likely to get very sick when infected and end up giving their family trouble.

"The elderly don't want to trouble their family. Once they know that if they take the vaccine (and are protected against Covid-19) and won't trouble their families, they will be more pro-vaccine," he said.

"I suspect the elderly without regular family doctors probably have more fear in them. It's easier for me to convince the elderly with an established doctor-patient relationship."

But in some cases, the fear of death is the overriding factor.

"Those who are unvaccinated, it's very hard to persuade them. They will ask, 'Are you going to guarantee I won't die?', and we can't guarantee that," said Dr Lim Boon Hee from Novo Vita Clinic and Surgery.

Dr Pauline Neow, who runs two clinics, including Mei Ling Clinic which offers Covid-19 jabs, said she has asked some patients to get jabbed, and has persuaded one or two of them to do so.

"I simply offered them slots in my clinic and they accepted," she said. "Those who are scared of the Covid-19 vaccine, I would encourage them to take the flu and pneumococcal vaccines. That's better than nothing."

Family physician Melvyn Tan from AMK Family Clinic said there is a group who feel that they are too old to get jabbed.

"They do not see the point of getting vaccinated as they believe they have nothing much to look forward to any more," he said.

However, some GPs like Dr Melvyn Tan and Dr Lim believe the fast rise in cases here and news of deaths overseas during new waves of Covid-19 infections there are likely to spur more people to get vaccinated quickly.

Dr Lim said: "People have more or less come to accept that they should get vaccinated after hearing about the situation in Indonesia or Malaysia, where people have died from Covid-19."