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Improving trust in COVID vaccines with research summaries

Leah Pistorius
December 2, 2022

University of Washington researchers are working with the public to design research summaries that improve awareness and trust in COVID vaccine safety research.

screenshot of meta-summary visualization A screenshot of the meta-summary created by UW researchers. The visualization includes an icon array representing the efficacy of vaccines at preventing serious COVID-19 outcomes; a bar chart depicting the number of people across studies with or without serious adverse reactions to the vaccine; an interactive scatterplot depicting the number, size, and risk estimates of studies over time; and a bar chart representing the most common sources of funding across studies.

Despite the broad access to COVID vaccines and documented research about their safety and efficacy, a lack of trust in vaccines and vaccine research remains a significant barrier to public health. Scientific findings about vaccine safety could most directly answer people’s questions, however, these findings are often difficult to communicate to audiences who may have a lack of trust in, or experience with, scientific research. 

An interdisciplinary research team led by Human Centered Design & Engineering PhD candidate Spencer Williams is working to develop new communication models to present the current state COVID vaccine safety research in an informative and trustworthy way. Williams and his research team recently published this work in Scientific Reports: Meta-summaries effective for improving awareness and understanding of COVID-19 vaccine safety research.

To improve people's awareness and opinion of vaccine safety research, the research team wanted to understand the needs of those who had concerns about vaccines. They recruited vaccine-hesitant people for a co-design study to understand how people gathered information related to vaccines, what barriers they encountered when accessing research, and what concerns they still had about vaccine safety. The researchers then worked with study participants to sketch ideal designs for research summaries that would make the information clear and trustworthy.

Using insights from the co-design sessions, the researchers developed "meta-summaries" to highlight helpful information about vaccine safety research. They tested the meta-summary designs against the Center for Disease Control (CDC) webpage about vaccine safety research. In a test of 863 unvaccinated people, the researchers found that the meta-summaries enhanced participants’ perception of vaccine safety research and that participants found the meta-summaries more trustworthy than the CDC webpage. They also found that people were more likely to talk about the research with others over the following week. However, the meta-summaries did not convince vaccine-hesitant people to get a vaccine, which suggests the need for future work in this area.

Collaborating with Williams on this project is Joy Lee, program manager at UW Medicine; Brett Halperin, PhD student in HCDE; Gary Hsieh, associate professor in HCDE; Katharina Reinecke, associate professor in the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and adjunct faculty in HCDE; and Josh Liao, associate professor of Medicine at UW Medicine. This work is funded by a 2021 grant from the Vaccine Confidence Fund.

For more information about this work, read the full article in Scientific Reports and find a summary of the research on Williams' blog.

Design recommendations

The researchers recommend the following design requirements when creating meta-summaries in this domain:

  1. Provide simple, concise, text-based summaries of the information.
  2. Provide interactions for details-on-demand, to provide deeper insights for those who want to interrogate the literature and ensure credibility.
  3. Visually convey the quantity of research.
  4. Visually convey the consistency of research.
  5. Provide key meta-scientific signals of credibility (e.g. funding source).
  6. Signal that the research displayed is representative of the full body of COVID-19 vaccine safety research.

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