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Exploring healthcare trends: Changes in vaccine discourse over time

Exploring healthcare trends: Changes in vaccine discourse over time

The COVID-19 pandemic stimulated a range of new healthcare trends and focus areas. Among the most fiercely debated issues was vaccination – something which had previously been a niche discussion area with the general public.

This striking social trend in healthcare is vitally important to understand – particularly with vaccine hesitancy on the rise in the United States. With protection predicated on a significant percentage of the population getting a shot, increased skepticism has the potential to impact everyone.

It’s with that in mind that market research agency HRW Healthcare wanted to investigate this healthcare trend. However, using quantitative data would only tell them so much – e.g. the number of people having shots was falling. To understand why, they needed to analyze qualitative data on the subject. That’s where Relative Insight Medical‘s text analysis software came in.

The result of our joint research is a report outlining how vaccine discussion in both the US and UK has changed since the onset of the pandemic. The digest examines how a vast increase in the volume of conversation has influenced discourse, the factors behind the polarization between pro- and anti-vaxxers, and the different priorities Brits and Americans express through the way they speak.

Read on for further detail on the report’s methodology and findings, or read it in its entirety now.

Why track vaccine discussions through social media?

The public’s attitudes and perceptions are increasingly shaped by social media conversations. Although social platforms have democratized discussions around science and healthcare, people increasingly select certain facts for their own interpretations of healthcare trends and issues.

This is why it’s vital to determine social media’s impact on topics that rely on positive public sentiment, such as vaccinations. There are two factors which emphasize this:

  1. Psychological impact: Research shows that humans believe that things that come to mind easily are more important and probable. When a topic is widely discussed in the public sphere, it creates an ‘availability cascade’ – people are more likely to think about, believe and discuss the topic. Therefore, increased vaccine discourse on social media shapes attitudes and perceptions towards vaccinations.
  2. Changing perceptions: People’s perceptions on a topic exist within the context of time and place. How people communicate reveals their perspective – looking at how vaccine discourse has evolved demonstrates the influence that events and cultural reference points have on their views.

Additionally, with vaccination the definition of a public health issue, understanding how the general public speaks about the subject is vital to informing the actions organizations working with vaccines need to take to maintain their effectiveness.

Vaccines as a social trend in healthcare mirrors wider societal themes

The study highlighted that vaccine discussions reflected wider online trends present in both the US and UK: memeification and politicization.

Tweeters were 10.9x more likely to use a standard meme when discussing vaccines in 2020 when compared to 2019. This consisted of the statement: “If you’ve ever eaten/drank/used X, then you don’t need to worry about what’s in the COVID vaccine”.

For example: “If you’ve ever eaten a hotdog, do not worry about what’s in the Covid vaccine.

Interestingly, this signaled a shift in the use of memes in vaccine discourse. Previously, studies into Twitter vaccine conversations found that anti-vaccine tweeters were more likely to use memes. However, our analysis highlighted that the pro-vaccine camp adopted this tactic more often for the COVID-19 shots.

As with most Twitter conversations, politics seeped into vaccine discourse as the pandemic progressed. In 2021, this was most apparent in the UK, with tweets talking about ‘political’ topics overindexing 31.9x more when compared to previous years. Themes more likely to appear included ‘vaccine passports’ (175.5x) and ‘mandates’ (35.9x), as well as discussions about specific politicians, such as Boris Johnson.

By 2022, Americans were 4.0x more likely to reference ‘politics’ than Brits. These discussions focused on how vaccine mandates and other policies had impacted voters during the mid-terms, with the topic of ‘elections’ overindexing 9.2x more.

For complete findings, download the full report

These are just a taste of the insights we’ve uncovered around one of the biggest healthcare trends of the 2020s. To discover everything our research revealed, download the report now.